By Associated Press - Thursday, January 30, 2014

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii lawmakers want to swat down a pair of invasive pests: the coffee berry borer and the little fire ant.

Despite their quaint names, the insects pose considerable threats to Hawaii’s fragile environment. House lawmakers are proposing to spend $3 million next year to control coffee berry borers, up from $250,000 last year. Lawmakers also want to put more than $306,000 into a pilot project to study the threat and possible eradication of little fire ants.

The borers are a familiar pest to coffee farmers. The tiny African beetles were first noticed in Hawaii’s agriculturally rich Kona region only in 2010.

“The coffee berry borer is everywhere in the world where they grow coffee,” J. Kenneth Grace, an entomologist at the University of Hawaii, told the House Agriculture Committee. “We’re not going to eradicate that pest. But what we have to do is keep it down as far as we can.”

James M. Wayman, the president and CEO of Hawaii Coffee Company Inc., testified that 20 percent of the coffee brought to his mill this year was lost to coffee berry borers, up from 5 percent in 2010. He usually needs 5½ pounds of coffee cherries to generate a pound of raw beans. Last year, because of the coffee berry borers, it took 8 pounds of cherries to get a pound of beans. On 4 million pounds of coffee, he said, the losses at his mill were worth $700,000.

“We figure 3 million dollars would cover all of the Big Island, all at one time,” he said. “Get them down under 5 percent or so, and then it’s livable to the industry.”

Colombian farmers who took similar measures have been able to contain the losses from coffee berry borers to 2 percent of their crop, Wayman said.

The little fire ant’s painful sting can cause blindness in livestock and pets. The ants also are known to kill young birds and sea turtle hatchlings.

“One of the challenges with invasive species is, once they get here it is nearly impossible to eradicate and it becomes a constant expense,” said Democrat Jessica Wooley, the committee chairwoman who represents Kaneohe and surrounding towns.

The House is also considering another bill that would provide $5 million toward efforts to control invasive plants and animals through the interdepartmental Hawaii Invasive Species Council. The bill calls invasive species “the single greatest threat to Hawaii’s economy and natural environment and to the health and lifestyle of Hawaii’s people.” Last year the state allocated $750,000 for the council.

As Grace, a termite expert, testified to the committee about controlling coffee berry borers, Democratic Rep. Isaac Choy, who represents Manoa, needled him about the futility of trying to eradicate invasive insects.

“And given enough time, maybe two more years, you’ll eliminate the termite?” Choy asked, drawing laughs from the committee.

“We actually have at least two really good tools right now,” Grace replied. “I actually think there’s some hope.”

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