Hawaii County fights Little Fire Ants at parks, zoo

Hawaii County fights Little Fire Ants at parks, zoo
Published: Apr. 19, 2014 at 3:57 AM HST
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HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - While an outbreak of Little Fire Ants was confirmed in Waimanalo on Oahu this week, officials on Hawaii Island have been trying to eradicate the painful pests from several county park facilities, including a beach park and zoo.

Little Fire Ants are difficult to see because they're so tiny, measuring just one-16th of an inch.  They can cause painful stings and blindness in animals.

People who use Richardson Ocean Park in Hilo know about the ants' painful effects.

"It stings like crazy no matter what you put on it," said Helen Geiger of Hilo, who swims at the park every day. "It lasts for days.  It's miserable and uncomfortable and those of us who come here all the time, we know all about it."

Geiger said she has been stung by Little Fire Ants at the park three or four times in the last several years.

"They might fall out of the trees, they might be on your towel if you put it down on the ground or if you're sitting somewhere they might just crawl up and decide to bite you," Geiger said.

The county treated Richardson Ocean Park for Little Fire Ants in January, reducing the ant population there by nearly 40 percent, said Pat Daly, superintendent of maintenance for the Hawaii County Parks department. County crews then re-treated the park last month, because scientists recommend re-treating about every two months.

"So this is not going to go away, I don't think," Daly said.  "And it's really got us concerned because we want the quality of life here for our patrons and tourists to be paradise for them, and with fire ants, I don't think it's going to happen that way.  We gotta get rid of them."

Daly said after news coverage of the Richardson Park ant treatments, the county received calls complaining of Little Fire Ants at about six other county parks.  Those reports are still being verified, he said.

Daly said the ants have been confirmed at two other county facilities: the bay front soccer fields in downtown Hilo and Panaewa Rainforest Zoo.

At the zoo, crews have worked to eradicate the ants in some animal enclosures, including one that houses deer.

Little Fire Ants have also stung people at the zoo's gift shop, where cashier Keakealani Merck has been a victim.

"Sometimes they can be falling from the ceiling. They'll fall from my blouse and then you're scratching trying to get rid of them," Merck said.

County officials said they've been helped tremendously by a University of Hawaii insect expert who's helping them fight the ants, using a $68,000 grant from the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Hawaii County is coming up with a protocol for other counties to follow when they have fire ant outbreaks in public parks and other facilities.

"A plug and play that we can share with the other islands to say 'This is what we got' and they can fine-tune it to their own needs," Daly said.

Daly said county officials now plan to survey all the parks around the Big Island to try to keep the Little Fire Ant problem at bay.

Little Fire Ants were first discovered on Hawaii Island in 1999.  They are now found from Laupahoehoe to Pahoa on the island's east coast, as well as isolated locations in Kailua-Kona.

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