Saturday, August 18, 2007

Afraid of RIFA (Red Imported Fire Ants)? Should be.

Hawai'i is paying increasing attention to alien pest invaders, but is it enough?

Consider the potential cost of one of them.

A team of researchers figures that the red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, could cost the state $211 million a year if it showed up. This ant, known as RIFA for short, is the one that swarms and bites with a deeply painful venom.

It's costing billions of dollars elsewhere, has spread across the southern U.S., and “in 1998, the red imported fire ant spread into California creating a highly probable future introduction via shipped products to Hawai'i,” wrote the authors of “Potential economic impact of introduction and spread of the red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, in Hawaii,” in the May 21 journal “Environmental Science and Policy.”

The writers are John Gutrich of Hawai'i Pacific University, Ellen VanGelder of the University of Hawai'i's Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit and Lloyd Loope of the USGS Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center.

The state, with substantial federal help, is training dogs and keeping a lookout for brown tree snakes. The community is spending vast sums fighting alien species already here, like the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to rid Lake Wilson of the aquatic weed Salivinia molesta. And some pests, like the two-spotted leafhopper, Sophonia rufofascia, are so widespread that the main hope is that some predator will show up or be specifically imported to keep them under some kind of control.

Gutrich and his team figure the RIFA will cause problems for homes, will drive cattle nuts, could affect the management of crops, will certainly affect recreation and so forth. They can start living in utility boxes, creating special problems for cable, phone and power companies. Dropping your beach blanket on a RIFA nest could cost you a trip to the hospital. (Imagine the impact on tourism.) Infants and kids are at special risk. Nationwide, 80 people are reported to have died from the stings.

Once established, the Hawai'i Ecosystems At Risk program says RIFA is virtually impossible to eradicate.

The researchers estimate $77 million a year in damages and costs of various kinds, and $134 million in lost recreational activities.

Their conclusion: The state would be advised to enact a program of “prevention, early detection and rapid response.”

For more information about the fire ant, see the Hawai'i Ecosystems at Risk web page,

Some folks will remind us that we already have fire ants, and that's true. We have three of them, but none is anywhere near as aggressive or toxic as RIFA.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

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