Air Potato Beetles

The Air Potato, Dioscorea bulbifera, is a plant in the Yam Family (Dioscoreaceae) not a true potato (Family Solanaceae). The Air Potato is a native of Asia, that has made its way to North America. In Africa, the Air Potato may be used for food. In Florida, the Air Potato has gone wild and produces tubers that are bitter and even poisonous. Florida vines can grow 8 inches (0.2 meters) per day. The vines will climb trees and produce dense foliage that shades other native plants.

The State of Florida classifies Air Potato as a “Noxious Weed” and works on eliminating the plant and controlling its spread. The primary means of control is pulling the vines by hand. However, the tubers can still survive underground and send up new shoots. The USDA Invasive Plant Research Laboratory has been working on other solutions. One solution is biological control. Researchers explore the native habitat of the invasive plant and identify the factors that keep the population under control in its native area.

Air potato beetle, Liliocersis cheni
Photo: USDA-ARS

In the case of Air Potato, The Air Potato Leaf Beetle, Lilioceris cheni, feeds on the leaves of Air Potato and limits the growth of the plant. One worry about any insect intentionally imported for biological control is, “Will this insect only eat the weed? Is it possible that the insect might damage important crop plants?” These questions are thoroughly considered before a foreign species is released. Lilioceris cheni, was studied for many years and feeds only on Air Potato. It cannot survive much further north than Florida. Based on extensive studies, the USDA concluded that the risk of Lilioceris cheni, becoming a pest was low.

To educate the public about the USDA efforts and the importance of biological control, local school children were invited to participate in the release of these beetles at the Long Key Nature Center. How effective will the beetles be at limiting the Air Potato Problem? That test is now underway.

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
This entry was posted in by jjneal, Education, Environment, Invasive Species, News, Pest Management, Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Air Potato Beetles

  1. Nick Christensen says:

    I think it is a very interesting article. However I do not think that having these beetles will solve the problem completely. Since the beetles only eat the leaves of the “Noxious Weed” and not the roots, they will not completely solve the problem. Also on the idea that these beetles on possibly becoming a pest insects, I do believe that this is very possible. I think this because they will have an abundant amount of food, and will probably be able to flourish because of this.

  2. jjneal says:

    The beetles have very specific dietary needs, which is why they are not expected to eat other plants. They will not eliminate the air potato, but keep it from being a pest.

  3. Nick Archer says:

    I think this was a good article. i did not know these plants were such a problem. I can’t believe that a beetle can keep the plant from growing all that much if it grows up to 8 inches per day. It seems that it would still grow a lot and still get out of hand. It is good though that these beetles dont have a good chance of growing into a pest since they cant live north of florida and only eat the air potato plant.

  4. CollageMama says:

    After a tough day at work I am chuckling about the Air Potato thought bubbles that pop into my head–obese humans and beetles on inflatable couches*, and noxious potato weed playing air guitar. Thank you so much for your unintended gift of levity. Enjoying your blog everyday.

    *You are probably way too young to remember Sixties inflatable furniture… http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=92868

  5. Michael Daniels says:

    After reading this article I do believe that this beetle should be used to help prevent the air potato plant. If this beetle eats only this plant, and can not survive much further than northern florida. I don’t see why these beetles would not be used to help prevent the spread of this harmful plant.

  6. Kevin Shao says:

    Would importing such large amounts of the beetles be bad for the area/place who is exporting the beetles? What would happen to the export place’s air potato problems?

  7. Branden Lesley says:

    I think that importing these beetles is a good idea. Even though as it was stated earlier that they have specific dietary needs one thing that I though about would be them adapting to the native plants. There is not a very large possibility of this happening, but there is still a slight chance. Other than that I believe that the beetles will do their jobs well and help to control this problem.

  8. Paul says:

    Normally we hear about an invasive species of insect like the Emerald Ash Borer or the Red Bay Ambrosia beetle destroying the native plants in an area. It is interesting to hear about an intentionally imported insect being used to control an invasive plant species. As long as the potential impact of importing a non-native species is thoroughly researched and well understood, I think this will be an effective means of controlling the spread of the Air Potato. In my opinion, this importation technique should be employed very carefully and only after other methods have failed, as it has the potential to create new problems if done carelessly.

  9. Harlan Shulevitz says:

    It seems like a good idea to import the Air Potato Leaf Beetle as long as it will not become an invasive species. It would probably be more detrimental then helpful if it ends up eating other weeds in Florida. I think that it might make sense to first just important a few beetles and track what they do. If the beetles only eat the Air Potato Leaf and are effective at killing it then import more beetles instead of just importing all of the beetles and hoping it works out.

    • Terry says:

      A post above is correct, they don’t need to import more and more of these beetles. For one if the 200 released can survive and have no problem eating Florida’s version of the air potato, there is no reason that they will not breed and flourish. If they flourish then they will not only keep breeding and build up a massive amount of beetles to bring the targeted area of air potato’s down to the root but they will spread to other areas that have the air potato also in search of more food. They do have wings and can fly…

  10. Nicholas Patterson says:

    This was very interesting. This is the first time I have been on this cite and I’m very impressed by the detail and information that is given in each blog post. What I believe will happen is that the plant and Beetle will continue down the same path. I don’t think the plant will ever be gone for good and likewise with the Beetle. They need eachother and have enough ways to protect themselves from being gone for good.

  11. Benjamin says:

    Wow! Thats crazy. Fighting mother nature with mother nature. I will be very interested to see if this solution works. I have to wonder if it would not be better to use some non-organic method, something like “RoundUp” or another glyphosate herbicide?

    • jjneal says:

      The expense in labor and materials make chemical control cost prohibitive. RoundUp will kill the vegetative parts of the plant, but the tubers will survive and regenerate.

  12. Pingback: Potatoe bettle | Fairenterprisi

  13. rick says:

    to prevent the further propagation of the plant, the beetles would have to destroy the inflorescences at each axil before they are pollinated and produce new bulbils. do they do this?

    • jjneal says:

      If they keep plants from generating enough biomass, reproduction of the plant can be reduced. Many times, the biocontrol agents do not eradicate the invasive species. Biocontrol would be successful if they minimized the impact and slowed the growth so it did not displace native plants. The most likely outcome is reduced populations of both air potato and the beetles.

      Efforts to keep invasive species out are important. Once invasive species are here, there may be no good control options.

  14. wayne says:

    Where do I obtain the beetles ?????

  15. Pingback: Living With Insects Blog

  16. voz says:

    my school has an air potato problem

  17. Laurie says:

    I live in Pasco County, Florida. Have had the Air potato problem for some time, but noticed this year the beetles have made it here naturally. We still gather and burn the bulbs, but the beetles are wow, eating all the leaves at a massive pace. I found several bulbs today where the beetles have burrowed inside. Has anyone else noticed this ?? I was able to get a picture of a beetle inside the bulb and bore holes throughout.

  18. Anyone interested in getting some lily beetles can contact me at email Sani at Vif dot com or at my twitter account.

  19. Anonymous says:

    And Amazon has Air Potato plants for sale.. Can’t have it shipped to Florida though.
    Hmmm….

  20. Diane Hudson says:

    I know this is an old thread…. BUT anyway> I have had air potato vines on a lattice privacy panel for years. I am on Tybee Island outside of Savannah, Ga. We have had really mild winters past couple years. The past 2-3 weeks something has been destroying the leaves. They have been eaten to the point that the leaves are lacey. Never seen this happen before? I did find one tiny red bug on one. So apparently those air pot beetles have migrated up to Ga.? This is the firat time anything has bothered the vines. I enjoy the vines and hate that they are being destroyed. I am careful in controlling them…so far are in only 2 places in my yard. Not sure what to do for them now.?

    • Bruce Veeder says:

      Did the beetles return this year. I live in the Tampa area and I introduced them three years ago and this year I see no signs of them. We had a frost this year and I wondered if that killed them? I assume you get a frost every year.

  21. Pingback: Educating with Biocontrol Beetles | Living With Insects Blog

  22. Mary says:

    What feeds on the air potato beetle? I use preying mantises to control bugs, and i don’t want to kill my new beetles.

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