So, suddenly I had a burst of inspiration to repot all the plants that have been begging for attention for months. It felt good to bust out those cramped roots from their too-tiny shoes. I was building some momentum, as a matter of fact, until I got to a variegated peperomia in a 6-inch plastic pot-- when I pulled it out, inside the pot was a small nest of tiny, slow-moving ants. I carefully placed the plant back into the pot. Glumly I resigned myself to the idea of having to take up some anti-ant artillery. I was sure they were little fire ants.
I sealed the potted plant in a plastic bag and took it to the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture on Lanikaula Street in Hilo. Patrick Conant, biocontrol entomologist, stepped outside with me to open the bag so as not to spread the ants inside the facility, and he brought out his official vial of alcohol and paintbrush to have an official look-see. Fortunately, when the plant was pulled out of the pot this time the ants were running around like ten thousand maniacs -- unlike little fire ants. They were too fast, too little, too yellow, too different, Pat said. Whew. They were tiny yellow house ants, Tapinoma melanocephalum, the smallest ants we have in Hawaii. Pretty common, nothing to get too excited about.
Pat shared some of his mana'o about the little fire ant. They're spreading fast on the Big Island. If you get them, treat the area right away and stay on top of it (ooo! figuratively!) or your neighbors will get them too. (IMPORTANT: DON'T spray or apply anything because then they'll scatter. Call the Dept. of Ag. asap.) The ants don't live only on the ground -- they can go up into trees too, and once they do that they won't come down to eat the bait you put down on the ground. Bad news for pets and birds: little fire ants will attack them and make them go blind and eventually kill them. The coqui problem by comparison seems a mere trifle, solvable by getting accustomed to the noise or using earplugs. However, the little fire ant situation is going to be no picnic for us if it continues to grow, to say the least.
Where can you get info on ID and what is being done to control the little fire ant and other plant pests in Hawaii? The state Department of Agriculture has a Plant Pest Control web page with Pest Advisories/Reports you can download here.