GAINESVILLE, Fla. — One of Florida’s most problematic invasive plants will soon meet a small but formidable enemy.
The air potato leaf beetle — a bright red insect about the size of a pinky fingernail — has a big appetite for the air potato plant, whose vines can completely consume natural areas, smothering other plants and native habitat. The beetles chew through air potatoes leaves, leaving them riddled with holes.
Tampa Bay residents of all ages will get a chance to watch these insects at work during the Air Potato Biological Control Demonstration Day, June 3. The live release of beetles will start at 9 a.m. at the A. L. Anderson Park, 39699 U.S. Highway 19 North, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689. Register online by June 1.
The event is organized by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension, and showcases the partnership of UF/IFAS and several state and federal agencies.
“Air potato is a statewide problem. Even in urbanized areas such as Tampa Bay, it is capable of choking out native vegetation and impacting entire plant and animal communities in the area,” said Ken Gioeli, natural resources agent with UF/IFAS Extension St. Lucie County and one of the event’s organizers.
During the event, individuals and families are invited to help release beetles onto air potato vines growing in the park. Staff will also be on hand to work with residents who need help managing air potato on their own properties, said Lara Milligan, natural resources agent with UF/IFAS Extension Pinellas County.
“The public will learn why air potato is invasive, and how approaches such a biological control can help manage the problem while reducing our reliance on chemical herbicides,” Milligan said.
Air potato is not native to Florida and gets its name from its potato-like tubers, which grow aboveground. It was able to thrive in Florida because it didn’t face the same natural enemies that would have kept it in check in its native habitat in Asia and Africa, according to a UF/IFAS Extension publication.
“Air potato vines were brought into Florida in the early 1900s and are now found in 60 out of 67 Florida counties and six other states,” Gioeli said.
Biological control is a method of using an invasive species’ natural enemies to control an invader. The air potato leaf beetle feeds exclusively on air potato, making it an ideal candidate for biological control, Gioeli said.
In 2012, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and UF/IFAS began releasing air potato beetles throughout the state. By 2015, about 450,000 beetles were release at more than 2,000 sites, according to a UF/IFAS Extension publication. Between 2012 and 2015, the beetles reduced air potato density and tubers by 25 to 70 percent.
Photo caption: The air potato leaf beetle was introduced in Florida to help control the invasive air potato plant. UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.