By Genevieve Fox
Dogs may be a man’s best friend, but they could also be a spotted lanternfly’s worst enemy.
Researchers at Cornell University recently finished a 2-year study to test if dogs could spot early populations of the invasive insect which devastates vineyards.
The spotted lanternfly was first found in the U.S. in Pennsylvania in 2014, said Carrie Brown-Lima, the director of the New York Invasive Species Research Institute at Cornell.
When the study began, the insect hadn’t shown up in New York yet, Brown-Lima said. The plan was to keep it out, but it quickly spread and was found on Staten Island in August 2020 and is very problematic.
These pests, which are native to Asia, reduce fruit and hardwood yields.
“New York tried very hard to keep it out of the state by doing surveys and searching areas such as vehicles to try and manage the population,” Brown-Lima said.
The best thing to do is to detect the fly early while the population is small, or prevent it from getting introduced, Brown-Lima said.
So how do you detect an elusive insect? How about dogs?
“Dogs can detect so many smells that we can’t, it’s amazing,” Brown-Lima said. “They can even detect disease.”
Not only do they have a great sense of smell, but they’re good ambassadors for outreach and education, she said.
Two years after that brainstorm, experts say the dogs are slowing the fly’s spread and detecting populations early, Brown-Lima said.
They can be expensive because you have to pay the handler, Brown-Lima said. “But if they could do a better job and be quicker, then it’d be worth it,” Brown-Lima said.
Not all dogs are suitable, she said. They have to be trainable, rewards-driven and high-energy.
The team hired two dogs from the New York New Jersey Trail Conference Conservation Dogs Program. Dia is a Labrador retriever and Fagen is a Belgian malinois. These dogs continue to work on other invasive species detection prevention projects like sticky sage and oak wilt, a type of fungus.
It takes roughly two months to train the dogs, said Arden Blumenthal, coordinator of the New York New Jersey Trail Conference Conservation Dogs Program.
She starts by training them in a controlled environment, like a room with a box, Blumenthal said. The dogs have to identify where the lanternfly is in the room. Then, once they pass, they do more realistic scenarios in the field.
This is where it can become challenging. In an outside environment, there are a lot more smells and distractions, Brown-Lima said.
The dogs are trained to look in the most productive areas where spotted lanternfly eggs would be found, Blumenthal said. During training, they place the pest in areas like tree branches and under rocks. This makes it so the dogs naturally will gravitate towards those areas out in the field.
“Egg masses are good camouflage,” Brown-Lima said. “They’re flat and blend in with the tree trunks.”
To detect early populations, the dogs search nine days out of the month from January until April before the lanternflies begin to hatch in early May, Blumenthal said.
The team found that in vineyards people can detect the spotted lanternflies faster than dogs. But in a more natural environment, the dogs find them quicker than people.
This detection helps prevent the spotted lanternfly moving from the forest to the vineyard.
The spotted lanternfly devastates vineyards when the population reaches a certain size, Brown-Lima said.
It feeds on the vine itself and the lanternfly excretes “honeydew” or their urine and feces, and once that gets on the leaves it destroys the fruit by blocking the plant’s ability to photosynthesize, Brown-Lima said.
There is expanding work using dogs for conservation work and invasive species detection. Other states like Montana have dog teams now that detect other critters, Brown-Lima said.
“This study was just a small slice of what we could explore with dogs.”