When Micaela Di Vico, 16, first walked into her conservation biology class at school, she refused to touch bugs. But to help preserve Kendall Indian Hammocks Park, she had to get over her fear.
“You live in this beautiful environment, and you don’t want it to disappear,” said Di Vico, a junior at Terra Environmental Research Institute, a public high school beside the park. “You want to future generations to enjoy it as much as you are.”
On Friday, nine students from Terra released 60 beetles into the Kendall Indian Hammocks preserve. It was part of a continuing project in collaboration with environmental specialists from the Miami-Dade parks department, the Parks Foundation of Miami-Dade, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The project is part of an effort to manage the area’s invasive air potato. Since 1993, the air potato has been a serious threat to south Florida’s natural environment, growing vines 30 to 40 feet long that chokes native plants.
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For years, experts had attempted to rid the natural areas of the invasive air potato. But because the vines grow at a rate of up to 8 inches a day, often outpacing the growth of other plants, and produce thousands of potato bulbils that re-spout, they are difficult to control.
In more than half of Miami-Dade’s nature preserves, with over 2,500 acres including Kendall Indian Hammocks, the air potato has become a major problem.
“It grows so much that it starts to kill our native vegetation,” said Alexis Salcedo, Terra’s conservation biology teacher. “Plants without light, they die.”
Four years ago, Eduardo Salcedo, an environmental resource project supervisor with the county parks department, was contacted by the manager of Kendall Indian Hammocks park looking for money to manage the preserve. Eduardo Salcedo contacted Terra, the school adjacent to the park, and got students to help volunteer.
“I realized these kids were very into environment and conversation and I said ‘let’s create a curriculum instead of just picking potatoes from the ground,’” Eduardo Salcedo said.
Eduardo Salcedo’s integration of the students volunteering in the park led to him writing grants to get equipment to run the program more effectively.
One year later, the parks department received a call from Min Rayamajhi, a research plant pathologist with the USDA’s Invasive Plant Research Laboratory in Fort Lauderdale, who was looking for a controlled site to study the impact of the newly approved leaf-eating beetle, known as Lilioceris chenis. The parks department selected Kendall Indian Hammock for the experiment.
Two years later, the beetles’ success with the air potato was obvious. The vines that twisted around the plants had gaping holes in their skeletons from the beetles’ grazing. At the same time, Eduardo Salcedo was awarded a $31,240 grant from the State Farm Youth Advisory Board to create a student-run beetle-rearing lab at Terra to help Rayamajhi restore the preserve’s natural ecosystem.
Under the guidance of Alexis Salcedo, with the added professional technical support from Eduardo Salcedo and Rayamahji, Terra students began breeding their own beetles.
“Without the students, this program would not have been possible,” said Eduardo Salcedo. “We basically brought together a pool of knowledge to benefit everybody.”
Friday’s ceremonial beetle release included opening remarks from the four participating organizations. Then the students, equipped with the plastic container of tiny red and black beetles, walked out onto one of the trails in the nature preserve and set the beetles free to roam the air potato vines.
For the last few months, the satellite Terra lab has acted as a subsection of the USDA’s effort to manage the invasive vines.
“This is a very unique project,” said Jose Soto, the State Farm community specialist who was at the release of the beetles into the park Friday. “Miami-Dade parks was only one of four in the whole state of Florida [that] received a grant.”
But for Alexis Salcedo, the most important thing is that students are learning about the environment and the importance of controlling invasive plants.
His passion toward environmental conservationism has extended outside the classroom and has stirred something within his 11th grade students, like Di Vico and Gabriel Caceres. The nine students that were present to release the beetles were just a small fraction of the students who have been involved.
“This is one of the last remaining hardwood hammocks in south Florida,” said Caceres, 16. “It feels great knowing that I helped conserve this track of land.”