AILUA-KONA — Picking fruit on some West Hawaii farms is more than just precarious.
As soon as the trees start shaking, farmers and field workers are as likely to get an armful of little fire ants as a handful of coffee berries.
Maki Morinoue, a fourth-generation coffee farmer who works her family acreage in Holualoa, became wise to that reality the hard way when she encountered LFA for the first time two harvest seasons past.
“(The ants) basically dumped down my shirt all the way across my torso, and it was this stinging,” she said. “I didn’t know what it was. It got bumpy and itchy and it lasted for three or four months. I was totally scarred up for a long time.”
The scars weren’t merely physical. It took Morinoue a few months to figure out what it was that had left her body burning, as uncertainty bred a lingering apprehension about heading back out to harvest — not only for herself, but for her father as well.
“The old-timers around me didn’t know what this was,” she explained. “We didn’t grow up with it.”
After her cousin attended an LFA meeting and relayed what she learned, Morinoue checked out a meeting herself. It was an LFA infestation plaguing her farm. She was sure of it. But identifying the problem has done little to allay her concerns.
“It was traumatizing. It kind of damages you mentally and emotionally because you know you’re going to get stung,” said Morinoue, adding her father suffered the brunt of an even worse LFA attack during last year’s harvest.
“It was quite daunting to learn how invasive these are,” she said. “We just started treating finally for the last four months … but I’d rather not pick around this area and keep treating. I don’t think it’s physically safe.”
LFA sting business directly
Little fire ants showed up on Hawaii Island in 1999 and were largely an east side problem, believed to have been aided in their spread across the island by community utilization of green waste, namely mulch.
Zack Weimer, managing partner with Tropical Tree Care Inc., has been working in the tree tops of West Hawaii going on eight years now. It’s in the palms, specifically, where West Hawaii’s LFA population favors building its nests, but any tree top is fair game.
Back then, he said, LFA were all but nonexistent on the Big Island’s leeward side. But over the past five years or so, particularly during the last three, Weimer said LFA progression in West Side neighborhoods has been “aggressive.”
Holualoa is home to the densest concentrations of LFA in the area, he said, and their proliferation is noticeable in the neighborhoods above the intersection of Lako Street and Kuakini Highway. But LFA show no signs of stopping there.
“To be honest, they’re pretty much everywhere,” Weimer said. “If you’re working in the trees and these things are shaking off on you all day, it’s pretty brutal. The feeling is almost similar to the burning of an acid on your skin. And once it’s there, it’s there.”
Weimer and Joe Pereira, owner of landscaping company HIL Maintenance, both said West Hawaii has become so infested with LFA that some companies refuse to accept landscaping contracts where the ants are known to reside in force.
“I’ve seen guys turn down work,” Weimer said. “Coffee orchards can’t get their coffee picked and people can’t get their yards landscaped because the fire ant problem is so bad.”
Some of Weimer’s workers, against his recommendation, have gone so far as to rub chainsaw oil on their skin around their necklines and shirtsleeves because they believe it offers a measure of protection against LFA bites.
The state Legislature has taken the matter of slowing LFA proliferation in West Hawaii seriously for several sessions, but Pereira’s outlook was bleak as to what impact such legislation can realistically create on the Big Island’s leeward side.
“It’s bad,” Pereira said. “I don’t even know what you could do. The only thing you could do is make everybody treat for these ants, but there’s hundreds and thousands of acres up there (on the mountain) people aren’t going to go up and treat.”
Fighting the problem with money
The three elements of LFA detection and elimination lawmakers are focused on are money, expertise and access.
Kona Rep. Nicole Lowen has introduced two bills this session, House Bill 2045 and House Bill 2046, to get at the problem.
The latter would grant the Hawaii Department of Agriculture $50,000 out of the state’s general fund to help detect and treat LFA in West Hawaii specifically. The former expands on a bill passed last year that gives relevant agencies at the state and county levels permission to enter private property to treat invasive species like LFA with definitive proof of their presence.
“This year, we realized the problem with something like little fire ants is … you can be pretty sure they’re there, but you can’t know for sure until you go see it,” Lowen said. “So this gives that same power (to inspect and treat private property) under not only affirmatively knowing little fire ants are present, but also with a reasonable suspicion they’re there.”
HB2045 passed through the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee with minor amendments and has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. HB2046 is on its way to the House Finance Committee after moving through the House EEP Committee with amendments rendering the monetary allocation unspecified rather than sticking firmly to the $50,000 figure.
Oahu Sen. Mike Gabbard has introduced Senate Bill 2124, which would pull $750,000 from the general fund and send it to the Hawaii Ant Lab of the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit of the University of Hawaii to battle LFA across the state.
Six full-time positions would be created for statewide efforts and would soak up $650,000 for total expenditures, including operating costs and equipment. LFA have been identified on both Oahu and Maui.
The other $100,000 would be earmarked specifically for the creation of a full-time position and related costs in West Hawaii to bolster the battle on the Big Island.
SB2124 has passed both the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Environment as well as the Senate Committee on Higher Education unamended. It will be considered next by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Maui watches Big Island, as it fights its own battle
Maui didn’t confirm the presence of LFA until 2009, and the Maui Invasive Species Committee has been working to get a handle on the problem ever since.
Brooke Mahnken, MISC’s LFA coordinator, said a proactive approach and lessons learned from LFA efforts on the Big Island have helped MISC and the DOA get a handle on several LFA introductions early on, stamping them out before they can proliferate extensively.
His organization pays particular attention to plant nurseries who do regular business with companies on Hawaii Island.
But several other sites, Mahnken explained, haven’t been so easy to control, and MISC has been burned more than once believing they’d eradicated LFA from an area only to return years later and find the ants back in force.
“We currently have seven sites on Maui under active management, and it’s my belief that there are other infestations here on Maui that we just don’t know about,” Mahnken said. “Generally, the way you find out is somebody gets stung and reports it.”
Proactive surveys and investigations often don’t turn up LFA nests, but they’re an integral part of MISC’s control plan nonetheless.
Of the seven known sites, Mahnken said one is recent — a plant nursery he believes may have been an active site for a considerable amount of time before its identification, spreading LFA to different parts of the island. He added, however, trace forwards, or investigations running down potential LFA contamination potentially linked to the nursery, haven’t yet turned up any evidence to support his suspicions.
The rest of the sites are shrinking, he said, save for one.
“They are getting ever-smaller, and one showed up without any ants the last time (we) surveyed,” he said. “That often gives people false hope that they’re gone. Our policy now is to do surveys for at least two years and up to five years at sites before we say the ‘E’ word.”
One area where Mahnken fears the “E” word — eradication — will never ring out is Nahiku, located on the windward side of the island near Hana. An LFA infestation was traced to a residence mauka of the highway on steep terrain, and from there streams carried the ants all the way down to the ocean through 40 acres of dense jungle inaccessible to ground crews.
“We’re working toward getting a special local needs permit to use a specific product from a helicopter and broadcast it,” Mahnken said. “If we do that, we might be able to get that population under control.”
More likely, though, Maui’s best chance is to eradicate the rest of its island and through control measures keep LFA localized to one patch of jungle.
Citizens take action
Such a hope, which is reasonable for Maui, is perhaps beyond reach on the Big Island, even in West Hawaii.
New LFA sites pop up all the time and on the leeward side, LFA are as much a residential concern as they are a problem in the island’s more wild places.
Lawmakers can bolster education and outreach with increased funding, expertise and attention, but curbing West Hawaii’s growing LFA infestation will ultimately fall to the citizens who make their homes here.
An entire Homeowners Association’s efforts to eradicate an LFA infestation can be derailed by one unconcerned or absentee resident, making clearing even one neighborhood of LFA a monumental task requiring unanimous diligence for more than a year.
Pet owners, meanwhile, have cause for concern. LFA stings can cause animals to go blind. Affected animals will have cloudy, milky pupils. The Hawaii Island Humane Society said it has come across such animals, mostly strays.
Carolyn Dillon, a Holualoa resident and founder of Little Fire Ants Hui, has made citizen action her mission since 2017. Dillon coordinates with Hawaii Ant Lab and the Big Island Invasive Species Committee to extend LFA education, training and resource access to homeowners, pest control operators and landscaping companies across West Hawaii.
Most recently, LFA Hui hosted a community outreach event at Holualoa Elementary School on Jan. 31, which was attended by several dozen local residents. The next meetings are 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Keauau Community Center and 6:30 p.m. March 1 at Konawaena High School.
Information on identifying and eradicating LFA is available beyond the meetings, namely at the Hawaii Unite Against Invasives website, HIunite.com.
The website is dedicated to combating invasive species beyond little fire ants, but LFA still have their own tab on the website’s homepage. There is also a citizen action tab that lists links to relevant biosecurity legislation, as well as brief descriptions of the bills. Finally, there is a mechanism to submit testimony on that legislation directly from the page.
“We are the eyes and ears of our communities,” Dillon said. “And if we can give (legislators) our stories and share what the invasive experience is here for us, either directly or through testimony, that will really make a difference.”
Worries about the future
Morinoue’s story about learning of LFA the hard way is a tale that continues to replicate itself on other farms and in other homes throughout West Hawaii the longer LFA populations run unchecked.
As she’s learned more about the ants’ stings and the poison they carry, Morinoue has become more and more concerned members of her family might end up with allergic reactions so severe they go into shock.
Her fears have left her unsettled enough that she’s considering an array of solutions, many of which would have been unthinkable to her only a few years ago.
“I almost want to just chop down all the trees in that area,” Morinoue said. “But then we have mango trees that have been in our family for generations. (One is) huge. Do you chop that down? It’s heart-wrenching in so many ways.”
“It’s my responsibility coming up to have to look after the land,” she continued. “And I have a son. How do we leave our future?”