It was the summer of 2017 when fire ants made their landfall in mainland Japan. Two years later, reported detections of fire ants are only increasing across the mainland. The question isn't if, but when they will reach Okinawa. A team of scientists across Japan is working hard to stop them.
As of October 2018, ants were found in 14 prefectures. The Japanese Ministry of Environment has taken steps to combat the invasions, initiating the Environmental Research Promotional Fund.
The fund brings together a collaboration of four Japanese institutes. The collaboration is led by University of the Ryukyus, and brings together Kyoto University, the National Institute for Environmental Studies, and Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST).
Each collaborator has a different role in the project. University of the Ryukyus is creating a new efficient technology of baiting for invasive ants. University of Kyoto is researching the change of ant's foraging behavior which affects the baiting efficiency. The National Institute for Environmental Studies is creating efficient and easy tools to detect and control fire ant. Lastly, OIST will be developing a social system to educate and disseminate information. OIST will use monitoring technology for surveillance networks and ordinary citizens to help in early detection.
The goal of this collaboration is to utilize various research outlets to establish an invasive species control system using fire ants as a model, and implement countermeasures in other prefectures, like Okinawa. To reach the goal, the three solutions to the project are: early detection, effective prevention and implementing awareness to society.
When fire ants first made their unwelcome entrance media coverage boomed, awareness increased, and fire ants soon became a household term in Japan. While media coverage has died down, the government and researchers continue to work to protect Japan from invasive ants.
On May 15, 2019 a kick-off event will be held at OIST to get a glimpse of the project. At the event the research plan will be outlined along with a question and answer session taking place afterwards.
The question of when fire ants will make landfall in Okinawa may not have an answer, but this collaboration is taking the steps necessary to prepare for the upcoming phases of invasion.
"We need to let people know the fire ant issue is not over," Masashi Yoshimura, research support leader at OIST said. "You may not see nests now, but due to international transportation we can't stop fire ant movement."