Asian beetle to the rescue? Local ecologists say insect can help combat air potato across Florida

Vine infests hundreds of acres in Palm Beach Co.

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. - No matter how hard Elizabeth Letts yanks on the air potato vine growing in her yard, it comes back every year.

The non-native vine was brought to Florida from Asia in the early 1900s. Now it grows over native trees and bushes in local yards and parks. It's already infested hundreds of acres in Palm Beach County, and it's almost impossible to get rid of.

"All the heart shaped leaves are air potato and you can't see the bush anymore because it's choking it out," said Letts.

The vine is expensive to remove. USDA ecologist Melissa Smith estimates counties in Florida spend $1,000 per acre using herbicide on the plant every year.

"The cost of removing the plant is astronomical, it's huge. Millions are spent per year removing the vine," said Smith.

But ecologists have a new tool in their arsenal to combat the vine, small Asian beetles, which only eat air potato.

"They're voracious. They'll chew these things to the vine," said Smith.

They also reproduce quickly. Smith put 50 beetles onto a vine at Letts' home Monday. Smith says there could be thousands of beetles there in a few weeks.

"I've heard a lot about the beetle and it's natural. I'm happy it'll eat the plant away," said Letts.

That means Elizabeth's days of pulling vines down one by one are over.

If you are interested in having the beetles on your property, contact the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at www.freshfromflorida.com

 

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