MIAMI – A beetle-rearing lab run by high school students may help combat an invasive plant species plaguing Florida parks and yards, researchers said Wednesday.
The beetles – called Lilioceris cheni or Lili – can help fight the herbaceous Air Potato twining vine that’s listed as one of Florida’s most invasive plant species and smothers native vegetation, officials said as they presented the lab run by students at TERRA Environmental Institute in Miami. The beetles set up at the lab will reproduce in order to be released into a South Florida park later this year.
The “Lili” beetle is native to Asia and Africa and was first released by USDA in 2011 in Florida (45 beetles in Miami-Dade and another 45 in Broward counties). The USDA, along with Miami-Dade Parks’ Natural Areas Management, wanted to provide a chemical-free and cost-effective method for combating the invasive vine.
The living laboratory started with a $30,000 grant from State Farm Youth Advisory Board to the Parks Foundation of Miami-Dade at the end of 2013. By early 2014, equipment was being acquired for the lab and then the USDA trained the six high school seniors on how to develop the lab and provided the initial starter beetles to mate.
Counting the larvae was the most difficult part of the project for Rolando Martinez, a senior at TERRA who participated in the project.
“It’s very important for me to maintain a natural environment,” the 18-year-old said as he held a plastic container filled with the adult red bugs that were mating.
“The male and female has to get together, because they will be feeding, flying around happy. So you have to give them space...and time,” said Dr. Min Rayamajhi, a plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who helped train the six students on beetle-rearing techniques. The containers are filled with “a lot of the good food while helping them. what do you call it.helping them mate,” he said.
The beetles rearing in the school’s lab can eventually be provided to other agencies and private homeowners where the Air Potato is taking over native vegetation, officials said.
Using a nonnative bug to combat a nonnative plant is “the way we need to do it,” Dr. Rayamajhi said. The invasive plant can grow several inches a day, climbing its way up trees and shrubs and “anything underneath it kills because it smothers everything.”
The plant can be found in nearly every county in Florida and even some of the neighboring states. Eventually the beetles and plants will slow each other’s progress “so the fewer the plants the fewer the bugs.”
None of the beetles released in 2011 have moved onto other plants, researchers said as they showed out half-eaten plant leaves in one South Florida park where the bugs had made significant damage. The plants nearby were untouched by the beetles.
Researchers hoped to release the latest group of bugs – with the help of students from TERRA – by mid-summer.