A small, but brightly colored beetle has appeared in north Florida: the air potato leaf beetle (Liliocetis cheni), a native of East Asia. The beetle, less than half an inch long, has a candy apple red body that stands out against green leaves and the more muted earth tones of most other bugs. The striking bright glossy red coating would be the envy of any sports car owner or fire truck driver.
Unlike other arrivals to the U.S., this insect was deliberately released in 2012 for biological control of air potato. After years of testing, approval was finally given to release air potato leaf beetles to begin their foraging campaign against this invasive plant species. The beetle has very specific dietary requirements and only can complete its life cycle on air potato. The larvae and adults of this species consume the leaf tissue and occasionally feed on the tubers.
When a population of air potato leaf beetles finish off an air potato thicket, they go in search of nourishment from the next patch of air potato. They are sometimes seen during stopovers while in search of their next meal.
Air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera) is an herbaceous perennial vine which is easily capable of exceeding 60 feet in length. It quickly will climb over any plant, tree or structure unfortunate enough to be in its vicinity. The vine also produces copious quantities of potato-like tubers suspended from its vines. Unless collected and destroyed, most of the easily camouflaged potatoes will germinate and intensify the infestation.
Air potato came to Florida in 1905 from China and quickly escaped into the wild. By the 1980’s it was a serious pest species in south and central Florida, but has gradually become established in the panhandle, too. Chemical control of the air potato has been difficult. Repeated herbicide treatments are required to kill a thicket with multiple plants.
Unlike the air potato leaf beetle that only eats air potato, kudzu bugs eat their namesake vine (kudzu), but also feed on a number of other plants including a wide selection of valuable legumes and be quite destructive. Kudzu bugs were accidently introduced in north Georgia in 2009 and have spread across the south in the ensuing years and become established in north Florida.
It is a pleasant surprise to know air potato leaf beetles are working to limit the invasive air potato vine, but it is sad to think there is plenty more for them to eat.
To learn more about the air potato and the beetle: