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July 2001, Vol. 26 No. 2
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Going on an ant hunt

Or how a college scholar and high school students use chopsticks and peanut butter to counter an alien invasion in Hilo

by Tracy Matsushima

What may sound like a Disney-esque plot is a real-life drama starring science education and the environment. As early as March 1999, a new stinging fire ant was discovered on the Big Island of Hawai'i and Kaua'i. The fire ant, Wasmannia auropunctata, is from Central and South America. Tiny and pale orange, it produces painful stings.

UH Manoa graduate student Dan Gruner has developed an innovative program that educates Hilo students about the threat non-native insect species—particularly the new fire ant—pose to their island ecosystem. While they learn, the students create a surveillance network to detect any spread of the ant. The project is one of several supported by a $1.4 million National Science Foundation grant to the university’s Center for Conservation Research and Training. It pairs graduate students in the UHM Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology program with schoolteachers to improve K–12 science instruction.

ants on a chopstick

At Hilo and Puna schools, Gruner teaches a two-day ant lesson complete with lectures, slides and fieldwork. He demonstrates how a homemade bait trap and a little bit of luck can secure ant specimens, and then sends students hunting in their own neighborhoods. “I use chopsticks and peanut butter because those are things that almost everyone will have in their home. Also this fire ant is attracted to peanut butter,” says Gruner. Back in the classroom, Gruner helps students classify their finds. “This is the exciting part for the kids—we discover what everyone has found.”

“This lesson makes students look at ants differently. They think about how destructive ants can be and how they are not native to Hawai'i,” says Keaau High School biology teacher Lisa King.

“The goal of the project is to provide the students with an interesting and exciting science experience,” explains Gruner. In turn, his ant detectives provide valuable geographic data that is used to manage an environmental problem. “Hilo’s fire ant problem is still at an early stage where something can be done. We can’t wipe out all the alien ants on the islands but we can do something about this species.”

Last year, Hilo students brought in 118 ant specimens. One was Wasmannia auropunctata. The fire ant had hitched a ride to the student’s home aboard palms purchased from a nursery and spread to a second yard when the family gave some of the palms to a neighbor. Gruner reported the discovery to the State of Hawai'i Department of Agriculture, which worked with the two homeowners to eliminate the ants.

No new populations of fire ants were found in the approximately 150 specimens classified this spring. “I’m sure it’s not as exciting for the kids—everyone wants their ant to be a fire ant—but they understand that, for the environment, it is much better if we do not discover any fire ants at all,” says Gruner.

In an unexpected scientific twist, the student ant hunters discovered two ant species never before seen in Hawai'i. “To find even one new ant is amazing,” says Gruner. Both ants were sent to entomologists with the Department of Agriculture for classification, and it’s believed that they pose no significant threat.

“This is an exciting program. If researchers tried to do this fieldwork on their own it would be difficult and extremely time consuming to get such wide-ranging data and specimens. With the students’ help, we’ve already collected specimens from more than 250 locations in the greater Hilo and Puna area. These kids are having a tremendous impact on their environment,” says Gruner.

For more information on Gruner’s project go to