Stopping the Little Fire Ant

"Early detection and rapid response is the only way to achieve invasive species eradication."

Suzanne Case
The Conservancy’s Hawai'i Executive Director

by Suzanne Case

When I first began working in conservation in the mid-1980s, invasive species was not an issue on anyone’s radar screen. Today, the problem is pervasive and could eventually overwhelm us if we do not bolster funding for our prevention and control programs.    

The latest in a growing list of pests—and in my mind the most serious yet—is the little fire ant. Last December, this stinging invasive was found on hāpuʻu logs shipped from Hawaiʻi Island to a number of nurseries and garden shops on Oʻahu and Maui. 

Although it’s only one-sixteenth of an inch in size, this little ant packs a powerful sting that can cause blindness in pets and painful welts on humans. What’s more, it is almost impossible to eradicate once a population becomes established.    

If left unchecked, little fire ants could infest our forests, our farms, our parks, our yards, even our homes.  Not only do these ants threaten our agricultural and visitor industries, they threaten our island way of life—in particular, the feeling of safety we have when we are outdoors.

The joy of being in Hawaiʻi has much to do with our pleasant, non-threatening environment. There are no biting sand flies on our beaches, and no snakes in our forests. Yet many of the nuisance insects and other pests that make most tropical areas in the world less attractive than Hawaiʻi would thrive here if they ever reached our shores. The little fire ant already has, and we have to move quickly if we hope to halt its spread.  

Little fire ants were first found in 1999 in east Hawaiʻi Island, where the problem now requires a major control effort and is too widespread to be eradicated. I grew up in Hilo, and little fire ants now infest beach parks in Keaukaha where I used to swim as a child.  If we are to prevent the same thing from happening on other islands, we must act now. Early detection and rapid response is the only way to achieve invasive species eradication. 

Increased state funding is also needed, for this effort and for a more comprehensive prevention and response program. At the 2014 Legislature, House and Senate leaders approved a $5 million increase in invasive species funding.  That’s great news and a step forward.  But if it’s only a one-time infusion of cash it will not be enough. We need a long-term commitment to increased funding to deal adequately with the larger invasive species problem that threatens our public health, our forested watersheds, our agriculture, our visitor industry and our quality of life in Hawaiʻi.     

As citizens, we must take an active role in detecting, reporting and stopping the little fire ant. If you suspect you have little fire ants, there is a simple test you can conduct: Smear a chopstick with peanut butter and leave it in places where little fire ants might be. Wait for an hour and then check the stick. If you find ants, drop the stick into a zip-lock bag, label it with your contact information, freeze it overnight, and either mail it to the State Department of Agriculture or bring it to their office on the corner of King and Keʻeaumoku streets.  You can also call the State Pest Hotline at 643-PEST or your island Invasive Species Committee for help. 

Stopping the spread of the little fire ant is a battle we can and must win. But it is only one part of a larger war that we must more adequately fund.   

First published as op-ed in the April 21, 2014 Honolulu Star-Advertiser.


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