Citizen Scientists are helping air potato beetle take a bite out of a major weed pest

A citizen science program in Florida is keeping track of how successfully the air potato beetle is keeping air potato in check.

Native to Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, air potato is a member of the yam family. The plant was first identified in the U.S. back in 1777 and spread throughout the Gulf Coast region of the U.S. It is now a problem weed in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. In both Alabama and Florida, it is listed as a noxious weed.

Spread via bulbils that resemble potatoes, the vine can grow and multiply rapidly, covering trees, structures and ground area. In the winter it dies back, but once warm weather returns, new growth appears. Although the bulbils look like potatoes, they are not edible.

“The air potato vine has been a growing problem in Florida for over 100 years,” says William Lester, Extension agent with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture (IFAS) in Hernando County. “It’s also a problem in other Gulf Coast states.”

Air potato beetle. Credit: Air Potato Patrol

About eight years ago scientists from USDA Agricultural Research Service, University of Florida IFAS and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services collaborated on the study of a beetle that fed specifically on air potato. In 2012, after testing proved that the beetle was specifically attracted to air potato for its food and breeding, the scientists began a “beetle release” program that offered beetles to land managers attempting to control air potato vines.

The beetle feeds on the leaves and sometimes the bulbils, skeletonizing the leaf to the point of disrupting the photosynthesis process for the vine. If enough leaves are eaten, this will significantly reduce the vines’ reproductive and smothering capacity. The beetles’ appetite for air potato is so specific that they will not eat any other vegetation, even if it’s growing next to the air potato vine.

Adult females lay about 1,200 eggs over their lifetime and can live for five months or longer. In the winter, they go into a diapause state. Not all of them survive to the next year.

Although the beetles seemed to be successfully controlling the vine, in the spring of 2016 many residents expressed concern that the beetles did not reappear. As University of Florida Extension specialists began surveying the public, they began to realize that the public did not understand the biological control program.

Air potato beetle at work.
Credit: Air Potato Patrol website

To remedy the public’s lack of awareness, Lester and Christopher Kerr with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services developed a citizen science project to track changes in the beetle population in addition to educating participants in the program. Anyone who wanted to participate had to watch 5 videos about the project, identification and biology of the air potato vine, biology of the air potato beetle and instructions on how to collect the data. After putting the website together and recruiting citizens, Lester and Kerr officially welcomed the first cadre of citizen scientists in June 2017.

The project includes a blog where participants can submit comments. The first post, in June 2017, introduced the project and videos and invited citizens to comment on whether they saw beetles in their location. The project website, at https://airpotatobeetle.com/ , contains a map that locates members of the citizen science group. The map also enables Lester and Kerr to pinpoint where beetles are returning in the spring and where new ones may need to be released.

“We are tracking when the vine starts to regrow and when the beetles start to reappear,” Lester says.

Currently 450 citizens are part of the project. Most of them are in Florida. Lester wants to recruit more people from outside of the state to track the weed and beetle throughout the Gulf region.

Last July Lester held a photo contest for which citizen scientists had to take a photo of the beetles in action. The best three photographers won a flip guide book on insects, plant diseases or weeds. Lester hopes to hold another photo contest this year.

Anyone in states where air potato has infested is encouraged to join the citizen science project. Go to https://airpotatobeetle.com/ and fill out the form under “Contact Us” to find out how to get involved, especially individuals from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: