Air Potato Beetles dine on invasive plants in Pinellas, Hillsborough

Erika Sanders moved into her dream house in the quiet Pleasant Ridge neighborhood of Clearwater about four months ago.

There was going to be some work to renovate it but the big house and its bucolic backyard back up to a park-like area near Allen's Creek.

She was told when buying the house that the heart-shaped vine growing wildly out back is the air potato, which can grow up to 70 feet tall. Sanders thought it would be no problem to remove the vines from the idyllic locale. But in trying to juggle work, life and a home remodel, clearing the vine engulfing the oaks and maple trees in the backyard has proved to be a nightmare.

"I didn't worry too much. I'll just pick the potatoes,'' Sanders says about her initial approach to the invasive vine. "But it's just so many.''

For Sanders and others dealing with air potato overgrowth, there might be some relief in sight. An Asian insect that feeds on the plant leaf and is used in parks and vine-covered public areas throughout Florida, including in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, may soon be available for homeowner use.

Natural migration works

A laminated sign pinned to a chain link fence near an air potato leaf beetle release point on David Avenue in Clearwater reads:

"This is a feeding site for the air potato beetle. Please do not use any pesticides.''

Rather than herbicides, the beetle is a bioengineering approach to eradicating the invasive air potato vine. In Clearwater, officials released 2,000 beetles at five locations throughout the city starting in April.

"We just put them in one spot and they migrate on their own,'' says Alexis Wells, landscape manager with the city of Clearwater. "When they finish in one area, you can see the natural progress. They will move from one section to another.''

Wells learned about the beetle a couple years ago while it was being studied by scientists at the University of Florida. The beetle was approved for use on public lands in 2012. He watched and waited as officials in neighboring cities Dunedin and Largo started using the beetle to combat potato vines there.

The results have been mixed. The beetles have been more effective feasting on the leaf in some of the release areas than others, Wells says.

"When we saw it was working … it was something as opposed to nothing,'' Wells says. "So we decided to give it a shot.''

The beetle defoliates the plant. Without the leaf to help the plant complete photosynthesis, the vine eventually dies. The process can take about a week, depending on the size of the plant.

Once the leaf is eaten, the beetle moves on to another, not feeding on other plants, even adjacent ones. In the winter, the beetle burrows under the dirt waiting for warmer weather to again feast on the plant leaves.

Because of its exotic nature, Wells understands residents could be apprehensive about the beetles' use.

"That's why we waited,'' Wells says. "Once we've seen the results we know it's going to work.''

Do try this at home

The air potato was introduced to the Florida landscape in 1905. It now is everywhere throughout the state and considered a nuisance.

The exotic invasive plant has variations in Asia and Africa. The Florida air potato has roots to a variation found in China. The vine can grow up to a foot daily and 70 feet overall, choking out other vegetation.

The air potato beetle was found feasting on the plants in Asia. The fingernail-sized, red insect looks like a cross between a ladybug and a tick. After the beetle was studied, it was made available for use on public lands and soon will be available for homeowner use, says Jane Morse, Pinellas County Extension commercial horticulture agent.

There is a waiting list and it can take up to two months to get them. The beetles will be sent on a first-come, first-served basis and public land requests supersede those for use on private land. Officials recommend releasing them immediately in the same area in order to give them a better chance of mating and reproducing. 

"The long-term value of these beetles has not yet been determined,'' Morse says.

Sanders calls the beetle a "godsend.''

With the help of some friends they cleared a pile of the vines but within a couple weeks the air potatoes already were growing back.

"It's all just engulfing it,'' she says pointing to a vine-covered oak. "And it is killing the tree. … If the beetles could just tackle them that would be fantastic.''

Jared Leone is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. He writes about all things Tampa Bay. Follow him @jared_leone on Twitter. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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Jared Leone is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.