By Kimeona Kane and Wayne Chung Tanaka
When Charene Crusat Haliniak moved to Hawaiian Paradise Park on Hawaiʻi Island from urban Honolulu, it was a long-awaited chance to reconnect with her home island, and to nurture and be nurtured by the ʻāina surrounding her new hale.
The first order of business: remove the invasive plants that had overgrown her property and give the native ʻōhiʻa and hāpuʻu room to flourish.
As she began to clear out yet another invasive tree, a sprinkling of leaves and bark dust fell on to her hair, her neck, her arms, as expected. This time, however, the falling detritus also included a shower of “little fire ants” (LFA) – the tiny, slow-moving, non-native insects infamous for the burning pain of their stings.
“The welts last for days. And even after the welts go away, I still have red marks…The itching is relentless,” Haliniak recalled of her first and many subsequent encounters with LFA.
Despite applications of Amdro pellets and precautionary measures like covering herself head-to-toe before doing any gardening, LFA and their stings are now an inevitable part of her new life.
“I try to keep them out of the house and the immediate areas around my house, and in my garden – which is a losing battle. There are ants everywhere,” Haliniak said.
Two of her three dogs have developed keratopathy, or clouding of their eyes, a condition attributed to fire ant stings.
Her neighbors have responded in various ways to this invasive pest, present on Hawaiʻi Island since at least 1999. One neighbor removed every tree from his property. Others pay for quarterly pesticide service, about $65 for a quarter acre application recommended every eight weeks for an indefinite period.
Their impact has been felt from Puna to Kona, with a pronounced effect on local agriculture. LFA have vexed organic farmers, subjected coffee farm workers to debilitating stings, and contributed to infestations of other agricultural pest species like aphids. One banana farmer spends tens of thousands of dollars every year on pesticides, with no end in sight.
Oʻahu Community Steps Up as Infestations Spread
LFA are now spreading to other islands, including Oʻahu, where they have been found on the windward side from Kahuku to Maunalua. While the Hawaiʻi Ant Lab and Oʻahu Invasive Species Council are doing what they can – and can point to proven eradication strategies with recent successes on Maui – they are underfunded and understaffed.
With government resources limited, and heeding the cautionary tale of Hawaiʻi Island, community leaders and groups on Oʻahu have taken it upon themselves to defend the island’s – and all of Hawaiʻi’s – future food security, native ecosystems, cultural practices, public health, and economy.
This includes Kimeona Kane, chair of the Waimānalo Neighborhood Board (and co-author of this article). Kane pursued a course of action with the Hawaiʻi Department of Agriculture (HDOA) after purchasing plants from a Waimānalo nursery that later tested positive for LFA.
The nursery acknowledged that they knew they had an LFA problem but continued to sell plants. This prompted a call to the Waimānalo Agriculture Association, which only raised additional questions regarding accountability and systemic failures.
This was not the first time community members were frustrated. In October 2022, the Waimānalo Neighborhood Board’s Community Plan Committee hosted a discussion with the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle (CRB) Response team, concerned that state agencies were downplaying the impacts of these pests in the community. In January 2023, the CRB Task Force announced that the battle to eradicate CRB on Oʻahu was lost.
However, hope for eradication of LFA remains, and Waimānalo is not the only community now taking action. After LFA colonies were found near the Key Project’s campus in Kahaluʻu, community leader Joe Wat walked door-to-door in the nearby neighborhood, to enlist residents’ help in identifying infested areas.
Rep. Lisa Marten, declaring her own district “ground zero” for LFA infestations on Oʻahu, also went door-to-door in Kailua, distributing and collecting popsicle sticks and peanut butter for residents to help identify where eradication strategies may be needed.
And across the islands, school gardening programs teach their students to monitor their gardens for LFA and coconut rhinoceros beetles. School-distributed LFA testing kits have led to some of the earliest detections of the pest on Oʻahu.
Will the Department of Agriculture Fulfill its Kuleana?
While many more community members have joined the fight to detect and eradicate LFA, a lack of regulation may confound their efforts.
Despite the profound agricultural impacts of the pest on Hawaiʻi Island, the HDOA has not updated its pest control rules to prevent the on-island sale of plants, soil, and other garden and nursery products infested with LFA, CRB or other pests, or to require that those commodities be treated before they can be sold or moved.
While most businesses would willingly refrain from distributing such products, at least one Oʻahu nursery is allegedly selling plants known to harbor the ants – and there is no regulatory mechanism to stop them.
Notably, draft rules that would enable HDOA to finally stop the sale of plants and other items infested with LFA, CRB, and other pests – and to require the quarantine and treatment of such items – were approved for a public hearing last February. The draft rules were reviewed by the Advisory Committee on Plants and Animals, the Board of Agriculture, and the Small Business Regulatory Review Board (which considers the potential impacts of such rules), with no testimony in opposition at any of their public meetings.
But eight months later, the hearing still has not been scheduled.
In an October 2023 letter to Sen. Jarrett Keohokālole, HDOA Director Sharon Hurd explained that the “agriculture industry” objected to the proposed rules’ quarantine provisions.
In an email sent on the senator’s behalf, a staffer for Keohokālole called the HDOA’s reason for the delay “unacceptable,” and urged the public to demand a public hearing on the original rule proposal.
A new rule proposal was then put forward by the department in November that omitted any mention of the LFA – much less provisions to prevent on-island sales of LFA- or CRB-infected products.
Advocates who have been tracking these rules for months, if not years, were perplexed and outraged.
At its November meeting, the Advisory Committee on Plants and Animals was inundated with testimony in opposition to the new draft rules. Additionally, a letter signed by 23 community organizations was delivered to the governor, urging that the original rule proposal drafted in February be given a public hearing.
In response to public pressure, on November 17 the HDOA withdrew its attempt to abandon the February rules, suggesting that it would move forward, finally, with the rulemaking process.
Whether the HDOA will follow up on its new commitment in a timely manner remains to be seen.
Kimeona Kane is the current chair of the Waimānalo Neighborhood Board. Wayne Chung Tanaka is the executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi and a former OHA public policy manager.