New outbreak of painful Little Fire Ants found in Waimanalo

EXCLUSIVE: New outbreak of painful Little Fire Ants in Waimanalo

WAIMANALO, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - There's a new outbreak of Little Fire Ants in Waimanalo, and the state Agriculture Department is still trying to figure out the extent of the outbreak while some senators are critical of the state's response.

The tiny ants can cause blindness in animals and painful stings leaving loots of welts behind.

Last Thursday, Rob Curtiss, acting plant pest control branch manager, said his office at the Agriculture Department confirmed an infestation of the Little Fire Ants on a row of trees in Waimanalo bordering two nurseries.

One week later, this Thursday, five agencies will go out to the area to survey and determine how widespread the outbreak is.

"We did detect them in that area, but we still have not mapped out how large of an infestation that is," Curtiss said.

The crews will take about 1,000 samples in Waimanalo and then spend a week to analyze and map that information, Curtiss said.

"It's so big, potentially so big of an area that we have to look at all at once, that we needed to pull together all these partners and we needed to coordinate all of that," Curtiss added.

In January, the state found Little Fire Ants at a handful of Waimanalo nurseries, but Curtiss said all those sites are now clean, after insecticides were used to kill the pests.  The ants had infested some hapuu fern and heliconia plants, he said.

"They are not being proactive and it's a sorry state of affairs from my perspective," said State Sen. Clayton Hee, chairman of the judiciary committee.

State Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, said, "Maybe they need to be a little bit more aggressive in what they're doing,"

Nishihara and Hee said the Agriculture Department is not fighting the problem fast enough.

"That's absolutely incorrect," Curtiss said. "Because from the very beginning, we've been out treating, surveying and monitoring for the little fire ant. And as we find new infestations, we immediately mobilize."

Hee said the state should have quarantined the nurseries and stopped them from selling products that could have been full of the ants earlier this year.

Instead, the state asked them to voluntarily stop selling suspect plants, flowers and produce.

"They are asking the nurseries to please don't sell.  It should be a requirement that nothing moves subject to a thorough inspection," Hee said.

Curtiss, of the Agriculture Department, said, "As of right now, it's not necessary to quarantine their nursery stock, because it's clean."

State ag officials said they have to get the cooperation and the buy-in from nurseries to enter their properties and search for pests, so they don't want to disclose the businesses' names and immediately shut them down if there's a potential pest problem.

"In trying to work with everyone, they are not taking the lead, putting the public interest first," Hee said. "If you put the nursery interest first, you're putting a commerce interest first, as opposed to a commerce interest."

Nishihara said: "They have to make a call that falls on the side of public safety and health, I think that's more paramount. If they don't do it right away and eradicate it where they do find it, then it will just spread.  Look at what happened to the coqui frog, right?"

The owner of one nursery where the ants were found in January said her nursery has the problem under control and all her plants are clean.  She asked to remain anonymous to protect her business.

She said if the state quarantined her business, she'd go bankrupt.

"If the nursery is closed down, there won't be anybody at the farm to fight the ants," the nursery owner said, noting she spent a lot of money on insecticide to kill the ants on her farm earlier this year.

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