TAMPA, Fla. (FOX 13) - Scientists are using nature to fight back against nature.
Across the Bay Area, insects are being released to feed on invasive plants. Homeowners can now get their hands on a beetle with an appetite for one particular vine.
The air potato vine is one of the state's most problematic invasive plants. It can overwhelm backyards, aggressively covering landscaping and taking over native plants.
Air potato vines are found in nearly every county across the state.
"Because it has such large leaves it does shade out anything underneath it, so you're gonna end up with a lot of difficulty for the plants that were desirable," explained Alyssa Vinson, Manatee County UF/IFAS Extension Residential Horticulture Agent.
It's called the air potato because of the potato-like bulbils it grows. But these spuds are anything but delicious. They're actually part of the reason the plant is so difficult to control and get rid of.
"Since it's a perennial plant it actually will die back in the wintertime, and those bulbils will stay underground, and it will re-sprout in the spring with new, vigorous growth," said Vinson. “The bulbils stay underground and it’s hard to find all of them and throw them away.”
The invasive weed can grow up to 8-inches a day.
Since the air potato vine isn't from our neck of the woods, our ecosystem lacks its natural predators. However, for the last four years, property owners have had help from a small beetle in their fight against the exotic vine.
"It doesn't eat anything except air potato," Vinson said.
The potato leaf beetle is a biological control, munching on the plant and reducing the vine's ability to overtake your yard. The red and black insects skeletonize the leaves, eating until the leaves are covered in lacy holes.
"An air potato beetle isn't necessarily going to completely eradicate the vine that you have on your property, but it's going to make it much easier to control," said Vinson.
It's the reason the Manatee County Agriculture and Extension Office hosts events handing out potato leaf beetles - turning to nature to do the work for you.
"They're charismatic, they're exciting little beetles," Vinson laughed.
Anyone interested in getting some potato leaf beetles to fight your air potato vines can order some from the USDA at www.FreshFromFlorida.com/APB.
You can also contact your local county extension office for more information.