air potato vine and tubers. UF/IFAS File Photo

Air Potato Leaf Beetles Available to Florida Residents

UPDATE: UF/IFAS concluded their 5-yr air potato leaf beetle distribution Extension program in September 2019.

To request beetles from Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, click: http://bit.ly/apbform


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).

Adult Lilioceris cheni, aka Air Potato Leaf Beetles. Photograph by Ted D. Center, USDA/ARS Invasive Plant Research Laboratory, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Adult Lilioceris cheni . Photograph by Ted D. Center, USDA/ARS Invasive Plant Research Laboratory, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

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
Air potato leaf beetle on a leaf

Air potato leaf beetle on a leaf. Photo By: Shannon Carnevale

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.

An aggregation of late instar Lilioceris cheni (Air Potato Leaf Beetles) larvae skeletonizing air potato leaves. Photograph by Elizabeth D. Mattison, USDA/ARS Invasive Plant Research Laboratory, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

An aggregation of late instar Lilioceris cheni (Air Potato Leaf Beetles) larvae skeletonizing air potato leaves. Photograph by Elizabeth D. Mattison, USDA/ARS Invasive Plant Research Laboratory, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

To request beetles for your property:

  • UF/IFAS has ended their air potato leaf beetle program. To request beetles, you will need to fill out the form on Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services website.

 

Originally published in May 2018 and updated in October 2019.

16 Comments on “Air Potato Leaf Beetles Available to Florida Residents

  1. I have seen these in polk county the last three seasons. Unfortunately, they also decimated my moon flower, native morning glories and other varieties of morning glory vines.

    • Hi Linda,
      Thanks for your interest in the program and I am sorry to hear of the damage to your morning glories.
      Years of research and testing has suggested that the air potato leaf beetle larvae will not eat anything other than the exotic air potato vine. However, if working in Natural Resources in Florida has taught me anything, it’s that the unexpected can and does happen. There are millions of insect species and so many of them look very similar. If you are seeing evidence of air potato beetles eating non-target plants, please take a few clear photos and send them to me at the contact information found here: http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk/natural-resources-and-conservation/ I am happy to follow-up with some of our entomology specialists and confirm the species at fault. Thank you again for your interest in the program and for keeping an eye on the little guys.

  2. I just photographed an Air Potato Leaf Beetle in my suburban garden in The Villages, Sumter County. I do not think there are any air potatoes around here, but there must be if that if the only foliage the beetle can eat. Should I report this, or are they becoming so widespread they can be expected anywhere?

    • Hi Gary,
      Great question! It is entirely possible that you saw some air potato leaf beetles, even if you don’t think there is any air potato nearby. The beetles may be looking for additional food patches and are travelling between them, or there may be some young air potato nearby that isn’t populous enough to be noticed yet. There is no need to report it, they are expected to spread out across Florida. If you have any doubt about whether it is an air potato leaf beetle or a similar looking species, your local UF/IFAS Extension Master Gardener plant clinic may be able to help confirm your identification. You can find your local UF/IFAS Extension office here: http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/find-your-local-office/
      Thanks for the comment and I hope you have a great day!

  3. Two years ago we had infestation of these Vines. A neighbor brought the beetles to us and they did their job. This year the vines are returning. We have requested more beetles through UF program. Are we causing any other problems by using them again?
    Rusty

    Thank you, rusty

    • Hi Rusty,
      Great question, and the short answer is no. Go ahead and release any beetles you are sent from the Air Potato Lab.
      The beetles currently exist in the wild, so it’s not something the lab will continue to supply forever. If you think about supply and demand, the beetle populations won’t grow until the vine populations are also growing … after all, the beetles need the vine for a food source.
      Air potato leaf beetles are a biological control agent which is meant to be one part of an overall pest management program. In english, that means that the beetles will not be able to eradicate the vine and they are not meant to. Their job is to make the vines less abundant so that we can use other methods for effective control. So, in addition to releasing beetles, we encourage you to remove any air potato bulbils that form (the potato part) or any you find on the ground. If you are continuing to see abundant amounts of vines, you may want to consider chemical control to help reduce the root systems. You can find information on that here: https://plants.ifas.ufl.edu/plant-directory/dioscorea-bulbifera/#chemical
      I hope this is helpful and I’m glad your beetles were so effective last year!

  4. I applied online about 3 weeks go for the beetle assistance program. I have not heard back from anyone or received any emails concerning my request. I can pick them up in Orlando but need to hear from someone so I can proceed.

    Thanks
    Kenny

    • Hi Kenny,
      We aren’t connected with the beetle rearing lab, so unfortunately, I can’t help much. This blog post is only meant to share information on how to request beetles.
      I recommend you reach out to Ms. Shuman (click her name to email her) on this website: http://bcrcl.ifas.ufl.edu/airpotatofiles/airpotatocontact_us.shtml Ms. Shuman is the contact that usually organizes beetle deliveries in Central Florida. Good luck and thank you for your interest i controlling the invasive air potato vine!

  5. Picked up and released my red beetles today in Oviedo and they went right to work. Hopefully they will lay a lot of legs and spread quickly to make a big dent on all of the potato vines close to my house. I will be checking on their progress and the weeks pass.

    • That’s wonderful! Thanks for sharing your successes in ordering and picking up beetles.
      If you’re ever interested in learning how to do a formal observation of your vines and the beetles’ progress, check out the new Citizen Science project: Air Potato Patrol (https://airpotatobeetle.com/)

  6. Rusty@abettercopy.com
    Yale Rutstein.\, Melbourne Village

    I received a few Beetles from a neighbor a couple years ago and had good results. Earlier this year I requested a new supply and went to cocoa, FL to pick up. These were given to me and I placed in a
    few areas of my property. Time has now passed and we do not see any results. While in County office I got two Containers. The 2nd went to a friend. I just spoke with him and he is very happy . Is my problem
    with the way I spread them in a few locations or just due to the rain we have gotten in Melbourne??

    Can I get a new supply?? with instructions on how to place for best results?

    • Hi Rusty,
      When picked up, the air potato beetles should be released at once, together. In other words, we recommend finding a healthy clump of air potato vine and releasing the entire container of beetles (usually 10-15 individuals) at that one clump of vine. We’ve had good results with the beetles released here in Polk County, even with all the rain we’ve had.
      I encourage you to reach out to the Air Potato Leaf Beetle lab, at the contact information found here: http://bcrcl.ifas.ufl.edu/airpotatofiles/airpotatocontact_us.shtml to inquire about getting additional beetles or to ask more specific questions about how the beetles are fairing in your area of Florida.

  7. We live in the north Deltona area and have a wooded area behind our house that has been invaded by the potato vine. We did not order beetles but are seeing some skeletonized leaves. It is slow going should I order more
    Beetles or wait and see how they progress? Also is there anything that eats/controls the vine that looks like a small leaf grape vine?

    • Hi Vicki,
      Thanks for writing. If you’re seeing skeletonized leaves, then you probably already have more than enough air potato leaf beetles! They multiply rather quickly and if they are already present there is no need to order more beetles. As a reminder, the beetles will never eradicate the vine. The beetle’s will slow the vine’s population growth and make it less vigorous. This makes it easier for us to control when you add in other control methods. We recommend hand-collecting any air potato tubers that fall to the ground, and disposing of them in your normal garbage container – not the vegetation bin! If you need further control, you can consider using herbicide or hiring a landscaping crew to do the work. The information you’ll need for that is found here: http://plants.ifas.ufl.edu/plant-directory/dioscorea-bulbifera/#chemical
      Additionally, keep in mind that the beetle’s are part of a natural cycle now. There will be years where the vines outcompete the beetles and vice versa. You can tip the scale to our favor by adding in the hand-removal of tubers or by applying herbicide. Picking up the “potatoes” in winter is a great landscaping activity to get kids involved, if you know any to enlist. It’s generally safe and helps them learn about invasive species. 🙂 Please feel free to email me if you have any questions, or contact your local extension office here: http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/find-your-local-office/

  8. Would like to get some Beatles we have those vine all around. How can we get some.

    • Hi Joan,
      The instructions are detailed in the blog post under, “How to request beetles for your property.”
      I encourage you to reach out to your local UF IFAS Extension office first though and verify the vine’s identification. We have two or three native vines that look similar, which the beetles will not eat. You can find your local office here: http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/find-your-local-office/

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