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
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 speciesparticularly the new fire antpose 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 universitys Center for Conservation Research and Training. It pairs graduate students in the UHM Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology program with schoolteachers to improve K12 science instruction.
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 kidswe 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. Hilos fire ant problem is still at an early stage where something can be done. We cant 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 students 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. Im sure its not as exciting for the kidseveryone wants their ant to be a fire antbut 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 its 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, weve 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 Gruners project go to http://www.hawaii.edu/gk-12/evolution/dang.mp.htm.