Scientists launch aerial attack against little fire ants

NAHIKU, Maui (AP) — Hawaii scientists have used helicopters to launch an aerial attack against an invasive ant species in east Maui.

The Maui Invasive Species Committee and Hilo-based Hawaii Ant Lab have sprayed low-toxicity gel bait from helicopters Tuesday to curb the stinging pests in the Nahiku forest.

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Fifteen helicopters were part of the joint-island effort to treat an infestation of the little fire ants also known as electric ants.

“This approach isn’t being used anywhere in the state,” said Lissa Fox Strohecker, Maui species committee spokeswoman. “It’s the first time we know of that anyone is using gel bait from a helicopter anywhere in the world.”

The spray combines food-grade ingredients and a growth regulator that acts like birth control, crews from Maui and Hawaii Island said.

Despite years of treatment administered on foot, thick vegetation and dangerous terrain make the South American native insects difficult to combat, scientists said.

The little fire ant has been called one of the worst invasive species in the world by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Invasive Species Specialist Group.

The insects are smaller than the average friendly ant and have a burning sting that can permanently blind cats and dogs and can cause irritation for humans, experts said. The insects can also create huge colonies of about 80 million ants every acre and fall from trees creating what scientists call “ant rain.”

The ant is a “game changer” for the environment and native ecosystems, Maui crew member Monte Tudor-Long said.

“It destroys everything in its path” and could cause native species to go extinct, he said.

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Experts are hoping to ease the fight with the helicopter treatments.

An aerial treatment should be expected every six to eight weeks for a year, experts said.

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