Tara using beetle power to fight invasive vines

Invasive air potato vines run wild in the Tara community choking the life out of pines and oaks.

The vines may have just met their match.

Tara officials distributed air leaf potato beetles Wednesday at eight locations throughout the community.

Some compare air potato vines to kudzu, another vine that smothers native vegetation in the South.

To the air potato leaf beetle, the vines look like breakfast, lunch and dinner.

James Kaluk, field manager for Tara Preserve Community Development District, received the beetles Tuesday in a ventilated cardboard box cooled by ice and shipped via FedEx by the University of Florida’s Hayslip Biological Control and Reserach Containment Laboratory in Fort Pierce.

“I kept getting complaints that the air potatoes where killing the trees. I did some research and found the beetles were being used in Hillsborough County,” Kaluk said.

The air potato leaf beetle is being released in Florida through a partnership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the University of Florida, according to the University of Florida.

The air potato is native to Asia and Africa. It was introduced to Florida in 1905, escaped cultivation, and like pythons in Florida’s Everglades, has spread aggressively.

So, could the beetle have another unintended consequence and pose a threat to Florida’s environment?

“No, the beetles have been thoroughly tested to make sure they will only eat air potato. They will not even consume winged yam, a closely related exotic vine, or two related native plants, Florida yam and fourleaf yam,” the University of Florida says.

When Kaluk opened the box, he found eight plastic tubs packed with beetles happily munching on air potato vines.

“If this works, I am going to do the same thing in another area of the preserve,” said Kaluk, who put out the beetles with the help of Dan Powers, district vice chairman. “This will be my favorite beetle if it works.”

The University of Florida says it does not have enough experience with the beetles to know how long it will take to control the vines, but has reported heavy damage to air potatoes within a few months of their release elsewhere.

So far, the only issue with the beetles was in Kaluk’s home when they were received Tuesday.

“My wife, Bonnie, would not allow me to open the box last night,” Kaluk said.

Since 2012, when the first air potato leaf beetle were released near Fort Lauderdale, approximately 430,000 beetles have been released in Florida at nearly 2,000 different locations from far south Florida to the panhandle, said Bill Overholt of the University of Florida.

James A. Jones Jr.: 941-745-7053, @jajones1

The air potato leaf beetle was first discovered in Nepal and later in China by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists.