Yellow Crazy Ants Invade Johnston Atoll


The Forgotten Island of Johnston Atoll” generated some great responses from those involved presently and historically with this remote atoll in the middle of the Pacific.

This includes updates from Susan White, Project Leader for Pacific Reefs National Wildlife Refuge Complex which encompasses Johnston Island and civilian Shelby Magnuson-Hawkins in charge of pest control on the atoll in 1995.

Ms. White informed me that the atoll is facing a new modern, non-nuclear threat similar to what Ms. Hawkins faced in 1995.

Invasion of the Yellow Crazy Ants

“We are currently organizing a field crew to deploy to the atoll for 9-months to control an infestation of the invasive non-native Yellow Crazy Ant that is a threat to the wildlife,” she said.

The ants, according to Beth Flint, wildlife biologist at the Pacific Reefs National Wildlife Refuge Complex, are “wreaking havoc, spraying acid into the eyes of birds, and forcing them to abandon nests. Nothing can withstand them.”

Ms. White said the Yellow crazy ant (YCA) infestation was first documented Refuge scientists in a January 2010 survey and may be result of an illegal landing by a trespassing boater.

“There is no record of them from previous years (and they are highly invasive so we would’ve detected them).”

Currently, it is relatively easy for a passerby yacht or fishing trawler to land on the island.

However, Ms. White said, the U.S. Coast Guard will be removing the Aids to Navigation that mark the atoll channel so it will be even more difficult shortly.

“U.S. enforcement, defense, and related government agencies monitor area traffic.”

The threat also affects other atolls, including Palmyra Island.

The Wildlife Refuge Complex is considering removing the causeway between the islets and the airstrip built during World War II, when the Palmyra atoll was a link in the allies’ supply line for the Pacific campaign.

“The construction so vital to the war effort nearly 70 years ago serves no purpose and now interrupts the circulation of water in Palmyra lagoons,” said a recent Refuge newsletter.

Ms. White confirmed that the planned trip back to Johnston Atoll will mean limited communications with the outside world during their investigation.

“But I’m hoping we might be able to provide a blog or Facebook page for updates to interested parties. I will let you know if this is successful,” she said.

After some further investigation it appears the Wildlife Refuge is seeking volunteers as part of a Johnston Atoll Ant Eradication Strike Team.

The press release outlines the requirements thus:

A 9-month field camp is being assembled to eradicate the invasive ant. In addition to maintaining pesticide bait stations, duties will include monitoring and enforcement of quarantine measures, monitoring ant and bird populations, and camp maintenance. The camp will consist of 4 people led by a biologist with extensive remote camp experience.

As a volunteer you will have the opportunity to live in this remote setting. You will be surrounded by birds and sea life. Johnston is a remote site where all but emergency access is by ship, which takes 3-4 days to transit from Honolulu. On the island, transportation will be by foot or bicycle. Living conditions are primitive and require sleeping and resting in 8x8x6 ft personal tents and a bunker will be used for communal/food storage and prep/working. Bathing is done in sea water. Contact with the island will be limited to text only e-mail with no internet. No re-supply or ship visits during the 9-month camp are anticipated.

Laura Meixell Lee Ann Woodward US Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System Honolulu, HI 808.792.9518 / 808.792.9562

I also asked Ms White to clarify, from her perspective, whether there is any real radioactive threat left on the island to humans.

“The island has been cleaned up to be safe for human occupation. AF has recognized landfills (permitted with land use controls). We abide by these controls including no digging in or eating fish from designated areas.”

Ms. White shared “The Forgotten Island of Johnston Island” article, with her team, who corrected and clarified some of the points brought up in the story.

The article implied that along with nuclear testing, chemical testing was conducted. This is not accurate. Rather, the sole purpose of the chemical apparatus was to first store and then destroy chemicals.

The Wildlife Refuge Complex also confirmed that the Agent Orange and dioxin are indeed gone from the island, but still remain in the near-shore sediment and fish.

The original article incorrectly stated that:

“Radioactive debris and soils were scraped and dumped in a 25 acre landfill, along with residue from Agent Orange containers returned from Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War.

The article also mentioned that when Captain Charles Johnston discovered the island in 1807 onboard the HMS Cornwallis it only consisted of two islands.

Actually, over time, the military increased the landmass by 10 fold by dredging coral, adding two new islands to the original pair.

The article also stated that the island was a “one-time” bird sanctuary.

However, according to the National Wildlife Refuge, the sanctuary, created in 1926 has never ceased to be a bird sanctuary even during the nuclear testing phase in the 1960s. Am I the only one who sees the irony in this statement?

While nuclear testing appears to be (largely) a thing of the past the article suggested that Johnston Atoll may not be exempt from future testing if the U.S. ever experienced another Cold War.

But, the National Wildlife Refuge begs to differ: “The DoD can change their mind…but they have formally found JA to be nonessential to military readiness.”

Let’s hope it stays that way, although it also raises the question of what criteria the U.S. military uses to select geographic locations for ANY form of military testing or weapon storage. I am not convinced the DoD would not target the island at a future date if there was a future escalation in the arms race.

Shelby Hawkins: Hero of the Mess Hall

The article also outlined the challenges facing Ms. Hawkins in combating the Formosan termite in 1995.

While she was successful, she had a difficult job “in light of the restrictions relating to pesticide use on the island which affect the Red Blood Cell Cholinesterase (RBC-ChE) baseline for humans stationed on the atoll.”

The Wildlife Refuge offered further background information relating to these ‘restrictions’:

“This was because 2 of the chemical agents being destroyed by JACADS, were super toxic forms of ACHE inhibitors, organophosphates….Malathion is the gentle end of the toxic spectrum of these pesticides. the JACADS worker…just as FWS contaminants specialists and pesticide applicators are monitored.”

But, the elimination of the Formosan termite was not Shelby Hawkins only goal: She also had to battle pests and rodents leading to some disconcerting, odd and humorous moments on the island. As a woman and a civilian, she was probably not taken too seriously by the military upon her arrival.

The decision to take up the military pest control contract on Johnston Atoll was not an easy one. She had to leave behind her family, three girls under the age of 18, and a commercial business that was just taking off.

But, the opportunity was a great one, especially suited to an individual with a strong personal drive that would later result in a patented ground application method in rodent control.

With the support of her boyfriend and family, she boarded a military-sanctioned 737 aircraft to the island sometime in 1995 heading for unknown territory.

“In order to get off the plane we had to hand orders to the man meeting us at the door of the 737 which flew us there. I saw the sign on the right stating “welcome to Johnston Atoll” on the left of the plane there were 2 mp with M-16s,” she said.

“Right away I knew there was a conflict in statements. The mission of the island was to burn chemical weapons we made during WWII, so prior to anything else we did we were to stand in line to get a mask in the event there were leaking bombs.”

“The island had a sensor system on it for the leaks but as a safety deal everyone had a mask, which later on I had to use twice. 2 guys came up to me and said ‘so you are the new pest control person and you think you are going to get rid of our termites?'”

“My first thoughts were ‘and this is what I left home for?’”

Her response: “That’s why you are paying me.”

Within months, the U.S. military personnel on the island would come to view Ms. Hawkins as something of a savior. Using Mother Nature as her partner, she systematically solved one pest control problem after another.

The previous article described how during the 1962 Bluegill Prime rocket launch the safety officer was forced to destroy the nuclear 1.4 megaton warhead which split plutonium over most of the western part of the island.

When Ms. Hawkins arrived on the island in 1995 this so-called “bomb pit” had been nicknamed “Pluto Pit” due to the presence of a large poster of Disney’s character emblazoned on one of the building overlooking the pit.

“In the Pluto pit there were these mice, for whatever reason they seemed to stay around the pit only,” said Ms. Hawkins.

According to Ms. Hawkins the U.S. military in charge of the island had informed her that using normal rodent bait was ineffective due to the affects of radioactive contamination.

Ms. Hawkins, of course, set about proving them wrong.

“I asked the mess hall for a bag of rice and 2 bowls. Without telling all of my secrets I put a bowl of rice and a bowl of water in a key place at the Pluto pit. The mice ate the rice, drank the water and died. The rice expanded inside of the mice when up their throats and they died. I’m sure most of them in their sleep because being that full does make one pretty sleepy.”

Already becoming something of a legend of the island, Ms Hawkins was dining at the mess hall when a conversation brought up a video inspection that had been made of the sewer system several years prior.

“What they found was lots of and lots of roaches. The cylinders to the sewer system was about 12 to 16 feet deep with no way to go into the area near the under ground ‘river/sewer’.”

“I took a long pole, taped a large paint brush duct tape, got to love that duct tape and dipped the brush into the pesticides with the idea of painting the lower ridge of the sewer cylinder.”

“The colonel had provided me with a strong guy to pull the man hole covers off. After I started to paint the cylinders’ bottoms I guess I made some nasty noise so the roaches started to come up and run all over the place?”

“At first I was in a panic state but then something interesting happened. The sea birds started to come from pretty much no where and started to eat the roaches.

“The joke around the island was ‘if you need the bug lady just look up at the sky and you will know where she is’.”

“It was true: The birds started to follow my truck around the island!”

Military personnel were amazed at the results she was getting, but what came next turned her into the hero of the mess hall.

Upon her arrival on the island the mess hall manager on the island had a jaundiced view of the civilian pest control units brought in by the military.

In 20 years, he had never passed a health inspection, and, in his opinion, the blame lay squarely with the pest control department.

Ms. Hawkins suggested she could help him with his problem.

“You look like a nice lady, but mess halls, tropics and roaches go together,” he replied.

Ms. Hawkins just smiled and set about investigating the crawl space underneath the hall.

She found it was like an underground cave with several interconnected areas. In order to physically investigate the caverns she first had to obtain a “Confined Space Permit”.

What she found next was the Holy Grail, at least to a pest control expert.

“The ground moved with roaches, the stem walls were black with roaches crawling all over them. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. There I was, in a 5000 SF crawl space that had never been serviced in 20 years and there were millions of roaches to send to the other side.”

“The first thing I did was to make sure the cracks in the mess hall were all sealed. I used about a case of caulking. I found all the expansion joints where the mess hall had been added. there was one other opening to the crawl space on the south side, that was sealed up.”

“After that there was only 1 opening to the crawl. Since the air force is really into safety stuff I had to wear an oxygen meter, a large “white” crawl space suit and of course gloves.”

“My assistant was outside with a pressurized canister with permethrims in it. I went in with a 2 gallon canister,(permethrims in there too) a back pack with glue boards, other baits for the mice there and crack and crevice pesticides.”

“I laid down a trap for the roaches trying to get away from me. Oh yes, I had to carry a radio with me, which the entire island was tuned into and my assistant.”

“As soon as I started my assistant Mark started yelling the roaches were coming at him like a horror movie. I’m glad he wasn’t inside because they were in my hair and trying to get into my suit which I had duct taped the legs and the arm areas.”

“The residents of the island who had access to a radio heard the entire conversation between Mark and myself, it was funny. It was like we were attacking a overwhelming enemy who were caught by surprise.”

“Two weeks later the plumbers went in the crawl space to service something there. They went in, crawled back out and went and got the colonel to show them. they had never seen anything like it. The colonel said he saw it for himself, there wasn’t a square inch in the crawl space without dead roach. Right before I left the island the mess hall passed their first health inspection.”

One Response to “Yellow Crazy Ants Invade Johnston Atoll”
  1. STG3 Clifford G. McClain 11 February 2016 at 6:44 pm #

    Interesting article. Really enjoyed “Hero of the mess hall”. Having a background and access to pesticides at a wholesale cost, I use to treat my friends home for them. Some cases were not to different from this one. It always amazed me how folks can could function with those nasty critters in their homes. They would pull a plate out of the cupboard and flick a roach off and put their food on the plate! Arrgh! How do you do that! When they tried to feed me, I had always eaten shortly before, even if I was starving! I hate the little buggers and the diseases they carry.
    Y’all need any help out there? I’m available.

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