An experiment to help eradicate an environmental nemesis has taken a giant step forward at Terra Environmental Research Institute, a magnet high school in Kendall.
Miami-Dade County District 10 Commissioner Javier Souto, who oversees county parks as chair of the Cultural Affairs and Recreation Committee, led a May 28 ribbon-cutting ceremony at the magnet school, recognizing a $31,240 grant that will continue raising the beetles that feast on the “air potato vine,” a recognized menace to tropical growth in county parks, nature preserves and agricultural land areas.
Capable of growing eight inches per day and reaching over 60 feet to tree-tops, the Asian-African species, if uncontrolled, can choke out native plant life, a particular worry for parks officials who want the beetles to “eat up” the invasive plants in park areas, rather than work crews spending time with costly mechanical removals.
The potato vine plant has been found in Kendall, Coral Gables, Palmetto Bay, Homestead, South Miami, Florida City, Miami Gardens, North Miami Beach and unincorporated areas.
“It is a serious threat to agriculture, a $3 billion industry and the second-largest in Miami-Dade County to tourism,” Souto noted.
For two years, Terra science students have spent countless community service hours, guided by a USDA Agricultural Laboratory in Davie, experimenting with beetle cultures, including testing the beetle’s appetite for potato vine implants at Indian Hammocks Park.
To further enhance Terra’s participation, a national State Farm Youth Advisory Board announced the grant to the Parks Foundation of Miami-Dade County, one of only four Florida recipients and 68 nationwide, noted Jose Soto, the insurance company’s public affairs specialist.
“State Farm supports service learning because it integrates service to the community into classroom curriculum, using a hands-on approach to mastering subject material while fostering civic responsibility,” he stated.
Without revealing specific data, Dr. Min Rayamajhi, a USDA plant pathologist from Nepal where he originally discovered the beetle’s vine-eating habits, forecast “some surprising documented results by fall,” testifying to an initial success in test areas.
Six plastic-enclosed incubators protecting five-foot plants were lined against the Terra biology classroom wall, providing progressive stations for growth of larvae to full-grown “Adams” and “Eves” whose progeny will be available wherever appetites for air potato vine may be needed.
Called the “Lili” beetle, the species was first released in Florida in 2011 by the USDA during a biological control program to discover a safe, chemical-free method for eradicating the vine.
Through NAM (Natural Areas Management division of Miami-Dade Parks), training was provided on pairs reared in the Terra laboratory, the only high school in Florida with the capability to supply the insects to other agencies or private homeowners where native vegetation is threatened.
“This project allows students to engage firsthand in a very important aspect of conservation and management of natural areas through use of biological controls,” said Alex Salcedor, Terra Conservation Biology teacher who added that the laboratory grant “was the kind of thing you dream about achieving as a teacher.”
“We started with our first class of 400 students, just five years ago,” principal Caridad (Carrie) Montano said. “Now we have over 800 and a waiting list of 1,000 who want to study here. “Just five years ago we were building this school. Now, we’re building a national reputation in biology.”
Also participating in the celebration were Vicky Mallette, chief of Parks Public Affairs and Community Relations, and Eduardo Salcedo, NAM biologist.