Out Vineyard Pests, Reduce Pesticide Use
(Beyond Pesticides, February 24, 2006) According to a story by the Associated Press (AP), vintners in some parts of California are turning to dogs in their fight against a new pest menacing vineyards by training golden retrievers to sniff out the vine mealybug, a little insect with the potential to stir up big trouble in wine country. The “Dog Squad” is still in the pilot stages.
Vine mealybugs hide under roots and bark where they're virtually impossible to see with the human eye. Once established, the conventional approach requires a large amount of toxic pesticides to get rid of the bugs, an unpopular resort for an industry that has been moving away from pesticides.
"The vine mealybug poses a huge threat to our progress toward both sustainable and organic farming practices," Jeff Erwin, deputy agriculture commissioner for Napa County told the AP. The vine mealybug showed up in Southern California more than 10 years ago and has been moving north, showing up in some prime grape-growing areas.
According to the AP, preventive efforts underway include using traps baited with a female pheromone to catch the males, which can determine if an infestation is present. Another approach is to try to control the ants that serve as vine mealybug protectors, fighting off predators to keep the supply of sugary honeydew coming. But many local growers, are most excited about the dogs.
"I like the fact that it's dogs. It gets away from chemicals," Elaine Honig, creative director at Honig Vineyard & Winery, told the AP. Her vineyard plans to use the trained dogs if the program is successful. "How wonderful to be able to solve a problem, have it be fun, have it be scientific and have it be good for the environment."
The Assistance Dog Institute in Santa Rosa, CA is conducting the dog training. "A third of their brain is their olfactory system. There is no machine that can detect odor anywhere near their capabilities," Bonnie Bergin, founder of the Assistance Dog Institute told the AP. So far, the dogs have been taught to identify the female mealybug pheromone and recently made the leap to identifying a piece of infected stock, much trickier since it meant dealing with competing, real-life smells such as mold and wood. Then small areas of vines would be removed or small treatments could be made, without spraying the entire vineyard. Field tests could begin later this year.