The introduction of an attractive little red beetle, augmenting years of efforts by committed volunteers, is helping rid Gainesville of one of its most noxious plant pests. For 15 years the annual Great Air Potato Round Ups were the largest volunteer community event for the City of Gainesville’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department. Now, with the air potato getting rarer, the city has opted to change the focus of the round ups.
This year, volunteers will participate in the first annual Great Invader Raider Rally and Gainesville Greenway Challenge, January 31. Volunteers will work to restore pre-assigned natural areas from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., then gather at Morningside Nature Center for a celebration including t-shirts, music, prizes, environmental booths, games and food (for sale).
The air potato, Dioscorea bulbifera, was introduced into Florida in 1905. The fast-growing, high-climbing vine tends to out-compete and smother native species. Until the introduction of the beetle as a biocontrol, management practices were time consuming, costly, temporary and often had negative effects on surrounding vegetation and organisms.
Lilioceris cheni, the air potato beetle, has one purpose in life: to find and feed on the air potato. Since 2012, FDACS has been rearing and releasing it from a laboratory at the Division of Plant Industry headquarters in Gainesville. Once released, the beetles have significantly reduced the out-of-control vines. The beetles are hardy, able to survive the winter months without food when the air potato dies back.
Biocontrols like the air potato beetle are helping communities like Gainesville rid themselves of noxious invasive plants, enabling dedicated volunteers to attend to other Great Invaders.
Writer: Rod Hemphill