TARPON SPRINGS — One of Florida's most persistent and 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.
Air potato vines can completely cover natural areas, smothering other plants and native habitat.
"Air potato (Dioscores bulbifera), a statewide problem, is a twining vine that attains a length of 60 feet or more. 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 the University of Florida Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Extension office in St. Lucie County and one of the event's organizers.
The air potato is not native to Florida, which makes it an invasive species. It gets its name from its potato-like tubers, which grow above ground. 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 an IFAS 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.
But air potato beetles, which make a small squeaking sound, can chew through air potatoes leaves, leaving them riddled with holes.
The public was recently invited to help release some of the beetles onto air potato vines growing in A. L. Anderson Park in Tarpon Springs. Tampa Bay residents Douglas and Staci Williams brought their daughter Paige, 11, to the park. Paige wants to be an entomologist someday.
"I love bugs and I love to help the environment," she 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 IFAS began releasing air potato beetles throughout the state. By 2015, about 450,000 beetles were released at more than 2,000 locations, according to an IFAS publication. Between 2012 and 2015, the beetles reduced air potato density and tubers by 25 to 70 percent.