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Jun. 4, 2009 by Judy

Ant In Da Pants (and cupboards and fruit trees and so forth)

Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about ants.  If your career does not depend on knowing one thing or another about them—the focus of an ecologist being different than the focus of a pest control person—you probably either a. hate them for one reason or another, usually having to do with a childhood trauma or b. overlook them unless you find them in your sugar bowl.


When I was about 4 years old, living in Germany with my mother at the time, I became desperately concerned that a colony of ants in the walled garden might not be getting enough to eat.  I recall concocting a mass of foul-smelling goo, pretty heavy on the eggs, and pouring said goo over the entrance of the nest.  The garden smelled like vomit for days, and I doubt the ants were grateful.  I think I felt better, though.  I was a different child.


Most people I talk to here in Hawaii, both visitors and locals, seem surprised to hear that ants are not part of the original fauna. Popular bio-wisdom estimates we’ve got between 30 and 50 species of ants here now, and I’d like you to stop and think for a moment and realize they all got here in the last couple thousand years, with MOST of them arriving in the last couple of hundred years.  They are very small, very tenacious, and mighty good at adapting to new places.


In the many variable types of dwellings I’ve inhabited during my years here, I’ve seen different ants in different places at different times of year looking for different things.  Some come in summer and want water.  Some appear in winter and I don’t know what they’re after, but they won’t leave the kitchen counter alone.  Some form highways on the inside walls, some never come inside, and some will crawl all over you while you’re camping on the ground and never so much as poke you with bad intent, much less sting.  They just tickle, and make it hard to sleep.


Generally, I leave them be.  I’m a bigger fan of living with crumb-cleaning counter dwellers than I am of inhaling toxic whatnot designed to control insects while bending my chromosomes.  Ick.  That being said, I am not without opinion about the presence of ants in Hawaii.  And that opinion is the equivalent of banging my head on a wall.  They’re making a mess of things.  Ecological things.


I was a child in Texas at the time that fire ants first moved in.  Within the span of 10 years we lost all ground-nesting animals.  The ground went sterile except for the columns of red and relentless carnivores with absolutely evil stings.  Back and forth to their mounds they went, and everything they could carry went with them.  I once saw a video of a horse, yes, a HORSE taken down by relentless swarms of fire ants.  It stumbled and went down on its knees and finally fell and went into shock.  Why am I telling you this horrible story?  Because fire ants have been introduced to the Big Island.


The Big Island has the potential, many of us believe, to feed the rest of us here in the state.  That island, that Eden of multitudes of microclimates, could at the very least feed itself quite comfortably.  The stories I hear now, however, say that farmers fear entering their orchards and fields due to attacks of the fire ants—a smaller species than I knew when I was a child, but just as relentless, just as efficient.  Here’s a quote from the website:


In 1999, another tramp ant was discovered on the Big Island. The little fire ant, Wasmannia auropunctata, native to South America, is already a serious introduced pest in New Caledonia, Gabon, and the Galapagos Islands. It probably arrived in Hawai`i in the soil of potted plants, and it is now known from approximately twenty locations on the Big Island. Studies of this ant in other regions forewarn us of the potential for negative impacts in Hawai`i. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global group of over one hundred science and policy experts, considers Wasmannia auropunctata one of the 100 worst pest species in the world.


Ants have come to Hawaii in fruit, lumber, cloth, soil…you name it.  They’ve come from such places as Africa, S.E. Asia, Brazil, the Indo-Pacific Area and Australia.  Like the rest of us, they take the opportunity to travel when it presents itself.


Also, like us, ants are highly social species.  They don’t do well without each other, the colony, their specialized roles.  Hawaii is unique in having no endemic (found only here) social species—our bees and our wasps, for instance, are solitary.  All hive insects of that type are introduced.  Imagine the changes in the ecology of not only flowering plants, but also of prey (wasps tend to prey on other insects) organisms in the islands.  We live in a net of delicate connections.  Into this net has dropped a whole new way of living. For many organisms endemic to Hawaii, this is not a workable situation.  Suddenly, these organisms are shouldered aside, out-competed, or eaten outright.


What’s to be done?


Well, if you’d like to see how the State’s forces are marshaled, check out the Ant Plan at this site:


Otherwise, when you’re packing to leave for Hawaii, take a good long look in those shoes that have been sitting outside on the step, at the corners of that old suitcase incubating in the garage, and in the Ziploc package of goodies you’re bringing to Auntie Pualani.  If you cart something in here that takes out avocado trees (not native, but not invasive, and clearly a gift from the gods) in the next few years, well, I may just have to hunt you down myself.  But that’s just the revenge of one avocado addict. If you bring something here that helps silence of the native birds, that bends and breaks a lovely tree that’s been cresting our mountains for thousands of years, that quenches the hum of a solitary insect which has so long been working for the joy of working…well, that’s some sadness there. 


Let’s avoid it.




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