Scientists Releasing Host-specific Beetle to Control Air Potato

January 31, 2013

The air potato, Dioscorea bulbifera, is one of the most aggressive invasive plants in Florida. Chemical control is difficult. Many Florida communities take a hands-on approach to eliminating the vine, which can grow eight inches a day and reach lengths in excess of 70 feet. Alachua County, for example, just completed its 14th annual Air Potato Round-Up, where volunteers collected literally tons of plants and tubers.

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Instar Lilioceris cheni larvae skeletonizing air potato leaves. (Photograph by Elizabeth D. Mattison, USDA/ARS Invasive Plant Research Laboratory, Fort Lauderdale, FL.)

Current air potato management practices are costly, time consuming, temporary, and have negative effects on surrounding vegetation and organisms. Now there is a highly effective biological control alternative in the toolkit.

One reason the air potato has been able to spread from Pensacola to Miami since its introduction into the state  in 1905 is that it has no natural enemies ­– until now. Fortunately, a leaf-eating beetle exists whose sole purpose in life is to find and feed on D. bulbifera.

The air potato beetle, Instar Lilioceris cheni, is native to tropical and subtropical Asia.  It is host-specific, attacking only D. bulbifera. Both larvae and adults feed voraciously on air potato leaf tissue. A single individual is capable of consuming approximately 30 square meters – about the size of an average master bedroom in the U.S. — in its lifetime.

The beetle is now being reared and released throughout Florida through the air potato biological control program, a collaborative project between the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Plant Industry and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service Invasive Plant Research Laboratory. The beetles are reared at DPI facilities in Gainesville and Ft. Pierce and at a USDA/ARS facility in Ft. Lauderdale.

Beetle releases began in August of 2012. Scientists chose several large air potato infestations in city, state and national parks for the initial release and research sites. Sites are located in Gainesville, Tampa, Ft. Pierce, Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. Beetle populations have established at all initial sites and are causing varying levels of damage to air potato infestations.

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