Wanted: Air Potato Beetles

Wanted: Air Potato Beetles

As the summer season begins to dwindle, requests continue to meander into the UF/IFAS Extension Manatee County’s Master Gardener Plant Clinic for Air Potato Beetles. Why would someone request a beetle? These beetles (Lilioceris cheni) are a useful biological control for the invasive and downright pernicious Air Potato Vine (Dioscorea bulbifera). Air Potato Vine is an invasive plant, originally from southeast Asia, which has prolific and vigorous growth. In the summer months, this plant will grow up to 8 inches in a day. It is most often found in disturbed sites in urban areas or in the urban/wild land interface between disturbed areas and natural areas. With such vigorous growth, this vine can cover desirable plants leading to their eventual demise. Air potato vine has a seasonal growth habit, with new vines sprouting from underground tubers (bulbils, potatoes) in the spring, vigorous vegetative growth throughout the summer months and dormancy in the late fall through winter.

In an effort to stem the tide of Air Potato conquest, many organization and academic institutions began to research biological control options. A biological control is a pest or disease from the native region of the invasive plant species. Since Air Potato is native to Asia, scientists began to look for evidence of pests or disease in Asia that attack the Air Potato Vine. With luck, a small charismatic beetle was discovered in Nepal and China munching on Air Potato Vine leaves. After extensive research in quarantine, it was discovered that the beetle only eats Air Potato Vine. The United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS), the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, division of Plant Industry (FDACS/DPI), and the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) are the main collaborators on the program to study and raise the beetles. Hundreds of thousands of the beetles have been released throughout Florida since they were approved for release in 2012. The beetles exhibit a similar seasonal pattern of boom and bust as the Air Potato Vine, with populations reproducing throughout the summer. The females feed and lay eggs on the underside of Air Potato leaves. During the fall and winter, while the plant sleeps in dormancy, so do the beetles.

How effective are these little beetles? Studies have shown a significant decrease in vine density and bulbil (potatoes) production. This decrease in vine density and bulbil production does not result in eradication of the Air Potato Vine, however. The use of Air Potato beetles must be in tandem with some other control methods.

Supplemental Control Methods:
  • Collect and dispose of bulbils
  • Pull and dispose of seedlings and vines
  • Use an approved herbicide to reduce vigor
Key Takeaways:
  • Air Potato Vine is an invasive plant species which causes significant damage to our local urban environments.
  • The Air Potato Leaf Beetle is a safe and effective biological control that can help control the vine.
  • Beetles alone will not eradicate an infestation.
  • Supplemental Controls are necessary for severe infestations.
  • Beetles are available upon request from collaborating agencies.
  • Beetles are only shipped during the summer months.
Additional Resources:

Air Potato Beetle Fact Sheet: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/IN/IN97200.pdf

Air Potato Beetle Request Instructionshttps://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Plant-Industry/Bureaus-and-Services/Bureau-Of-Methods-Development-Biological-Control/Biological-Control/Air-Potato-Vine-Biological-Control 

Air Potato Biological Control Poster: http://bcrcl.ifas.ufl.edu/airpotatofiles/graphics/air%20potato%20poster%202017.JPG