About three minutes after I posted last week’s story about how little fire ants were infesting the Andaz Maui Resort in Wailea, questions from readers (and my colleagues) started rolling in. How did the ants get there? Where did they come from?
These aren’t trivial questions. Considering the potential dangers little fire ants pose to people and pets, it would be best if state and local agriculture officials not only contained the infestation (which seems to have happened) but also isolated the source of the ants so they don’t spread elsewhere (which does not seem to have happened).
In its own June 21 story on the Andaz infestation, The Maui News reported some vague speculation from Maui Invasive Species Committee (MISC) Manager Teya Penniman, who initially refused to disclose the name of the Wailea hotel where the ants were found in the first place:
“She said the little fire ants were found in the vicinity of dracaena palms, suspected of having been imported from the Big Island, where little fire ants have become well established since arriving there in 1999.”
As far as who on the Big Island may have supplied the vegetation that contained the ants–or if even that’s how they arrived–no one can really say. When I asked Maggie Holmes, who handles public relations for the Andaz, she referred me to the state Department of Agriculture (DOA): “The Hawaii Department of Agriculture is doing the follow-up on the finding, so they would be the best source to answer your question,” she said.
But the Hawaii DOA wasn’t much of much help either. Here’s what Janelle Saneishi, the state Department of Agriculture’s Public Information Officer, said in an email today when I asked where the ants came from:
“They [DOA inspectors] could not pinpoint how LFA got there. It is a new hotel with new landscaping from different sources. It was confined to the landscaped area, so it’s a good guess that it arrived on some plant material. Sorry, can’t be be more specific.”
State officials using phrases like “could not pinpoint” and “good guess” aren’t likely to calm down resident and visitors fears–especially when official government statements on little fire ants takes such an alarmist tone. Here’s an excerpt from the website Fireantfreemaui.org, which is sponsored by state and local governments and organizations:
“Little fire ants (LFA) are devastating communities across the Pacific. Passive and deceitfully small in size, these South American imports pose a grave threat to Hawaii. They can deliver a painful sting, blind animals, and reduce biodiversity… If we do not stop the spread of the little fire ant we stand to lose much of our agricultural industry. We will lose our ability to grow our own food, enjoy our yards, and hike through the forest. Ground nesting seabirds and sea turtle hatchlings will be attacked, along with many of our rare insect species. Once little fire ant is established, there is little hope of eradication.”
That’s a terrifying scenario. It would be nice if the actions of state and local agriculture officials was as aggressive as their rhetoric.
Photo of a little fire ant biting a human: Plegadis/Wikimedia Commons