Lee County Parks & Recreation officials have recently released a biological agent to control the spread of an invasive exotic plant within Matanzas Pass Preserve.
According to Lee Parks Land Steward Terry Cain, five mating pairs of a specific Asain leaf beetle were set free into the Beach preserve to help combat the quick-growing air potato plant.
The air potato leaf beetle (LILIOZERIS cheni) was released two weeks ago. This project is part of an ongoing research study.
The air potato plant with a heart-shaped leaf is growing within Matanzas Pass Preserve. Recently, a specific Asian leaf beetle has been released within the preserve as a biological agent to control the spread of the invasive exotic plant.
"We are very excited about this wonderful way to try to control this miserable, exotic plant," said Lee Parks Land Steward Terry Cain. "The exotic grows exponentially without any inhibitors at this time of the year. It grows about two feet a day and displaces the natural habitat and prevents other native plants from photosynthesis because it covers it. It usually is labor-intese and costly to control the air potato."
The goal is for the beetle to eat the leaf of the plant, thus killing it by way of not allowing it to produce its own energy through photosynthesis. That way, indigenous plants within the preserve will prosper and not be choked by the air potato plant's vines.
The beetles, which are originally from China, are part of a extensive research study of the USDA Invasive Plant Laboratory in Fort Lauderdale. It is a natural predator of the air potato plant, an exotic from Asia.
"We have been in contact with two post doctorates (Ellen and Melissa) at the laboratory," said Cain. "This is something that we have been waiting to happen for a long time now."
The program is not a trial-and-error experiment.
"It has been extensively tested that it is host specific, meaning that it will only eat the air potato," said Cain. "It is supposed to virtually have no risk to other plant species."
Lee Parks officials and the Saturday preserve work crew have let the air potato plants grow for a year to show they have not been controling it to allow the biological control study take effect.
"We are excited to see how they do," said Cain. "The Friends of Matanzas Pass Preserve welcomed them with a welcome sign to their new home."
The beetles were transferred into the preserve while clinging to an air potato leaf.
"While we were placing them into the preserve, we noticed that one of them had already laid eggs. So, we should have extra 'lili' beetles," said Cain. "We are very happy about that."
The study should yield results in a year's time. There will be updates via post docs every few months to check on the progress, says Cain.