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Invasive Fire Ants Wreak Havoc in Hawaii

Dec 29, 2014 11:33 AM EST

The Hawaiian islands are slowly being conquered, but not by an invading country or aliens from outer space. Instead, the aptly named "little fire ant" seems to be winning an ecological war on the island, surging back with a vengeance even after they were thought to be defeated earlier this year.

The tiny red ants, known for their painful rash-inducing stings and short tempers, were first noticed on the Big Island in 1999, likely having reached the island through shipping from Central America. Within the following decade, the invading ant population exploded, becoming far more than a nuisance.

Today, the ants are known to wreak havoc on local agricultural communities, shredding through vegetation even while they adversely affect helpful local fauna. They also have been known to rain down from trees on residents and are suspected to even blind pets. According to the Hawaiian Ant Lab, there is only one study that supports the theory that little fire ants (LFA) blind pets, but the circumstantial evidence remains strong, with instances of sudden pet blindness in the region abnormally high.

These problems have prompted Hawaiian officials to take action against the ants, with the United States government spending a stunning $7 billion across affected regions (primarily Florida and Hawaii) to contain and eradicate these ants.

Nine months ago, it seemed that these efforts were paying off, with a massive infestation in Maui declared officially eradicated after a decade-long battle. However, it was soon revealed that this is just part of a greater picture.

According to The Associated Press (AP), officials continue to battle a 13-acre infestation in Kalihiwai, Kauai, and three months ago, officials found the largest area of little fire ant infestation yet on 20 acres of forest near Nahiku on the northeastern shore of Maui.

It is suspected that this infestation was two decades in the making, and was simply long-overlooked.

"The (Agriculture) Department doesn't have enough personnel, and the ant could turn up anywhere," Randy Bartlett, a coordinator with the Hawaii Invasive Species Council, explained to the Honolulu Star Advisor.

He added that residents can help simply by identifying LFAs (not to be confused with European fire ants) in their own backyards.

"What we've seen so far could be just the tip of the iceberg," Bartlett warned.

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