Close-up of an air potato leaf beetle

By Tom Nordlie, photos by Lyle Buss and Eric Zamora

The air potato leaf beetle could be cleaning up your neighborhood right now.

This shiny red and black insect has been released in Florida since 2012, thanks to a biocontrol program.

The beetle helps manage air potato, a fast-growing vine that’s native to Africa and Asia and is found statewide in Florida. The vine was brought here more than a century ago and it thrived in Florida’s sunny, humid climate.

Air potato causes problems by climbing and covering trees and shrubs, shading those plants from sunlight they need.

For decades, air potato was controlled in Florida with hand-pulling and application of herbicides. Volunteer groups also collected the potato-like bulbils that form on the vines and spawn new plants.

Scientists hoped that biocontrol would offer a better solution.

In 2002, a team of U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers visited the air potato’s native habitat in Asia. They found a beetle that feeds on air potato leaves, as a larva and as an adult.

This beetle consumes no other food. By damaging the leaves of an air potato, the beetle weakens the whole plant and slows its growth.

After years of testing proved that the beetle was harmless to other plants, the U.S. government gave approval to use it in Florida to control air potato.

Since 2012, UF/IFAS researchers have worked with USDA and other government agencies to raise and distribute the beetle.

Reports say the beetle is performing well and reproducing on its own in the wild.

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