Little fire ants found at 2 locations within HVNP

  • The Steam Vents area of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of two locations in the park where little fire ants have been found. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

  • Hawaii Volcanoes National Park staff use a chopstick with peanut butter on it to attract little fire ants. HVNP photo

HILO — Little fire ants have been found in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

In a news release, park officials said Thursday that populations of little fire ants, also known as LFA, have been detected at the popular Steam Vents area and the Mauna Ulu parking lot. These are the first known populations of little fire ants in the park.

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David Benitez, HVNP ecologist, said the infestation was discovered last week by a team of park biologists conducting baseline surveys for the ants in high-traffic areas of the park.

“Both sites appear to be in the early stage of invasion, so we’re hopeful we won’t find LFA to be more widespread. And we’re also hopeful that our control efforts will be successful,” Benitez said.

Intensive sampling is underway to determine if the ants are more widespread. Park scientists are working with partners, including the Hawaii Ant Lab, to respond quickly to the threat and evaluate control options while ensuring visitor safety and protecting native ecosystems.

No bites have been reported, and no ant-related closures are in effect.

“We’re looking at options including barrier treatment, as well as gel spray applications of a pesticide to control the ants,” Benitez said. “I want to underscore that these treatments will be conducted in ways that are appropriate to the environment and that minimize risk to nontarget species, as well as risks to humans and other park resources.”

Little fire ants, an extremely noxious invasive species which can have devastating impacts to native ecosystems and human health, were first discovered on Hawaii Island in 1999.

According to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources website, infestations are widespread throughout the windward side, including in Hilo, Puna and along the Hamakua Coast. Smaller infestations have been found in the Kona-Kailua area.

“Since 2014, we have had in place a monitoring program that sought to check and inspect cargo and deliveries destined into the park for LFA and other invasive species. And over the course of that program, over a dozen times we turned away vehicles that had cargo, or the vehicles themselves, that were infested with LFA,” Benitez said. “They greatly rely on humans to get moved around the island. So it’s not surprising that we’re seeing them in these high-traffic areas.

“So we want to continue our efforts to raise awareness and educate our staff, our contractors and visitors about the impact of LFA and ask for everyone’s help to ensure that their vehicles and gear are free of LFA before coming into the park.”

Benitez said that while entire ecosystems within the park — including tropical rain forests, dry forests, grasslands, shrub land, subalpine environment and coastal scrub — can be adversely affected, “a handful” of native species are particularly susceptible to the aggressive insects.

“The nene, which is our state bird and a federally endangered species, when nesting are certainly susceptible to being swarmed, bitten and attacked and injured by the ants,” he said.

He added there are no known predators of the ants in the park.

According to Benitez, two national parks in the Pacific — Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park in Kona and War in the Pacific National Historical Park on Guam — already have experienced LFA infestation.

“We are embracing their lessons learned,” he said. “And one of those lessons learned is that reaching out to those technical specialists, mainly the Hawaii Ant Lab, is really important. Another lesson learned is that your surveying needs to be very thorough, both before you begin treatment and after you complete treatment, to make sure that this doesn’t get away from you.”

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Benitez said the park doesn’t have special funding in place to combat the ants, but added park officials “will work within the park service to seek additional funding to help us control these infestations.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.