Air Potato Leaf Beetles Available to Florida Residents
Residents cannot request air potato leaf beetles for their property at this time. “Due to the large volume of requests, the air potato beetle program is not accepting new requests at this time. Please check back in October 2020 when we hope to begin accepting new requests again.” – Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. This post will be updated if and when the situation changes. For more information, please see the FDACS Website at https://www.fdacs.gov/Divisions-Offices/Plant-Industry/Bureaus-and-Services/Methods-Development-Biological-Control/Biological-Control/Air-Potato-Vine-Biological-Control)
You may recognize the long twining vines and glossy heart-shaped leaves of the exotic air potato vine, but would you recognize its greatest enemy in Florida? Air potato leaf beetles are small red beetles with a black head (see photo on right).
This petite insect’s larvae turn those large glossy leaves into lacy, hole-filled, skeletonized leaves which significantly reduces the vine’s natural ability to overtake a yard, park, or entire natural area (see photo below, left).
History of the Air Potato Issue
For years residents and park managers battled with air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera) as it aggressively covered our landscape. You see, air potato grows prolifically here because it’s not from our neck of the woods and as a result, our ecosystem lacks air potato’s natural predators.
After extensive research on its safety and impact, the air potato leaf beetle was approved for release in Florida. This beetle helps control the air potato vine population by eating its leaves and stunting its growth. The latest data from citizen scientists shows that the air potato leaf beetles are flourishing.
In 2012, the U.S.D.A., the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and UF/IFAS began releasing air potato leaf beetles throughout the state to combat the exotic invasive vine. To learn more about the air potato leaf beetle, see the UF/IFAS Entomology and Nematology Department’s “Featured Creatures” page, here: http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/BENEFICIAL/BEETLES/air_potato_leaf_beetle.htm
Air Potato Leaf Beetles will reduce the vine, but not eliminate it
After several months of beetle activity, residents should notice the signature lacey-leaf damage the air potato leaf beetles cause. That damage will help weaken the vines and reduce its growth and vigor. However, it is important to note that the beetles will not eradicate the vine from your property.
Biological control agents are one tool in the toolbox when fighting invasive plants, but additional steps are often required for full control. In the case of the air potato vine, residents will see better control if they remove and dispose of (in landfill-bound garbage containers) the “potatoes” left behind by the vine in the fall and winter. These bulbils are abundant when the vine is healthy and can be as large as a bowling ball. Most are around the size of a large apple or sweet potato and are easily removed.
Why should you remove the potatoes?
These potatoes are the “seeds” for next year’s crop of air potato vine. By removing them and throwing them promptly in the garbage bin, NOT the vegetation pile, you are reducing the quantity of vine you’ll have to fight next year!
Consider hosting a neighborhood block party or BBQ and having a contest for the younger generation. Whoever picks up the most air potatoes wins a prize! Picking up the air potatoes is easiest after the vines die back for winter, after a good cold snap.
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Originally published in May 2018, revised in March 2020, and updated June 2020.