Charismatic microfauna: using Lilioceris cheni to increase public perception and acceptance of the biological control of weeds.
This paper describes an outreach and education program that is centered on the charismatic biological control agent Lilioceris cheni (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae) and its target, the invasive air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera), an easily recognizable, climbing vine in the southeastern USA. Many landowners struggle to control this invasive vine, and L. cheni can reduce vine cover and propagule production significantly. This education program was paired with a mass-rearing and release effort and was conducted at extension offices and community events throughout the state of Florida. The campaign provided L. cheni to interested stakeholders for release and provided educational activities for both adults and children. Educational activities included games for children, such as "pin the insect on the host plant" to demonstrate host specificity and biological control agent tic-tac-toe. Educational displays for adults included live invasive plants and their associated biological control agents, brochures, diagrams and photographs illustrating agent efficacy and host specificity. The program has been highly successful with nearly 57 000 L. cheni beetles reared and provided to stakeholders for release on public and private lands in 2017 and 2018. The program also significantly increased the general knowledge (on a self-assessed 10-point scale) of invasive species of the people surveyed by an average of 227% and general knowledge about biological control by an average of 401%. Perception of the safety of biological control of those surveyed increased by an average of 434% and perceived effectiveness of biological control increased by 344%. The combination of a charismatic and effective natural enemy along with an educational program has significantly increased the knowledge about invasive plant species and the knowledge and acceptance of biological control as a safe and effective control method.