Working Dogs Join Fight Against Spotted Lantern Fly in United States

Native to China, the Spotted Lanternfly, first discovered in the United States in 2014 in Berks County, Pennsylvania has become a major pest.

They feed in large groups on grapevines, maples, black walnut, birch and willow, producing a sugary syrup called honeydew that encourages the growth of a black sooty mold that can both injure and sometimes kill plants. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture estimates the SLF could cause $324 million in damage to Pennsylvania crops and the loss of 2,800 jobs if not controlled.

People in the Northeastern United States have been encouraged to stomp on these insects if they see them. Chemicals are also not the best way to rid a grapevine or similar plant of these pests. How about scent-detection dogs who could lead officials to where their unhatched eggs are to help control the insect population at the source?

“The problem in the United States is that this insect has no natural enemies,” said IWDA member Dr. Edgar Aviles-Rosa, who works in the Canine Olfaction Lab at Texas Tech University with fellow IWDA member Dr, Nathaniel Hall. “Chemicals are not the best way to handle this. Scent detection dogs can help.”

Aviles-Rosa, along with Hall and Virginia Tech researchers Erica Feuerbacher and Mizuho Nita, conducted a follow-up study which was spotlighted by Aviles-Rosa at IWDC 2021 and is available online to IWDA members.

That group followed up a University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) study from Sept. 2019-20 that confirmed trained scent dogs could detect the odor of SLF eggs and lead to better control of the insects.

Given a a $475,000 grant from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service in April 2021, Aviles-Ros and Hall teamed up with Feuerbacher and Nita to add to what was found at PennVet.

“This project will allow us to investigate the fundamental capability of the canine nose to identify and detect agricultural pests and diseases, which cost multi-millions of dollars in damage annually,” Hall said. “While exploring the sensitivity and resolution of the dog’s nose, we also will evaluate the capacity of already scent trained dogs in sport scent work through the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) across the U.S. as a means to support farmers with an early detection tool for agricultural diseases.”

“We were very appreciative of the USDA funding this research,” said Aviles-Rosa. “It helped us follow up the PennVet study quite well.”

The Texas Tech-Virginia Tech group wanted to ascertain if scent detection dogs could detect SLF eggs in the bark of a tree or plant. The insects lay their eggs in the bark to camouflage them and detecting the eggs before they hatch, then removing them, was not an easy process.

In their study, the Texas Tech-led group utilized seven dogs and trained them to detect the odor of SLF egg masses. Through a 9-step training regimen, it was found scent-detection dogs could detect those masses at a 95-99 percent rate. The group also tested the dogs’ abilities against distractors and to detect different plants that hold the egg masses.

Although field trials still need to be conducted, the study indicates detection dogs could prove an asset in SLF eradication efforts by discovering the unhatched eggs.

By Jed Weisberger