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Little Fire Ants

fire_antWe Thought We had Them, Luckily We Do Not: Learning to identify them
La'akea Community, Puna

Over two years ago, when we first became aware of the presence of the little red fire ant (LFA) on this island, we began systematically testing the land at La'akea Community with peanut butter sticks. LFA are drawn to cheap peanut butter, they like the protein and the sugars. To test your farm for the presence of LFA, you can put a dab of peanut butter on popsicle sticks and leave them in various places around your land for a day, checking them every three to four hours. When we conducted such a test a few months ago, one of our members found some small reddish black ants. When she pressed them with the inside of her elbow she was bitten. She welted up pretty good and thought she had a positive id for LFA. We got scared. We thought these were fire ants and that they had come in on some dump mulch we received. We went into action – we spread Amdro (ant poison) over vast areas and set up traps anywhere we had put the mulch. People that came onto our land during that month saw the ant traps and we told them we were attempting to eradicate a fire ant infestation.

Fortunately it was an incorrect id and our member is just extremely sensitive to ant bites. We got suspicious when she (our sensitive skinned member) started finding them everywhere, away from where we had put the mulch. We began to question our method of identification.
We went online and attended meetings about the ants. Now we have learned how to positively identify LFA. First we look at their color (red, almost pink) and size (very small); how fast they move (very slowly) and how well they hold onto the peanut butter stick (easily knocked off); and crunchy, like grains of sand, when you pinch them between our fingers. If all of these tests are positive, one of us volunteers the inside of our elbow and we do the squish test and look for the welts. Once we used this protocol, it turned out that what we thought were LFA, weren't! We were incredibly relieved.

To keep the land we live on free of LFA, we check all organic matter before putting it down on the ground. Any plant we buy at the market or in a nursery, any plants, cuttings or boxes of food people bring to us, we check with peanut butter sticks. We have since identified them on two truck loads of coconuts harvested from locations away from our land -- which we did not unload. LFA are a serious concern. It is a lot easier to prevent them from arriving than it is to deal with them once they have established themselves.

More information at Hawaiian Eco Systems at Risk (HEAR)

(Editors note: the Little Fire Ant was just found on Mau'i for the first time on October 2nd)

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