Dogs collar vineyard bugs

California vintners have unveiled their latest weapon in the war against vineyard pests: golden retrievers.

California vintners and dog lovers have raised over US$33,000 to train the dogs to sniff out the insidious vine mealybug – planococcus ficus.

The dogs’ keen sense of smell is perfect for early detection of the vine mealybugs, according to Katey Taylor, head of the Carneros Mealybug Working Group and viticulturist at the Carneros-based Domaine Chandon, which donated US$5,000 to the project.

The mealybug ‘hides very well, under roots and bark, and can seriously damage grapes’, Taylor told decanter.com. ‘The dogs can detect the bug early on, which will enable wineries to limit damage to small areas, reducing pesticide use.’

Researchers at UCI Davis consider the mealybug a growing problem in California. It is easily moved from infested to non-infested areas with contaminated farm equipment, worker clothing, birds and wind. Mealybugs contaminate clusters with egg sacs and larvae and cause other problems to the vine. Even a small infestation can quickly result in large economic losses if left unchecked. Once established, the pest is extremely difficult to control with insecticides.

Other wineries and individuals also contributed to the ‘Assistance Dog Institute’ which has been training puppies since summer, Dog Institute spokeswoman Jorjan Powers said.

‘We chose golden retrievers because they are active and run freely in the vineyards, which is what we will expect from them this spring, in the first practical test.’

The dogs are expected to bark at points in the vineyard where they smell the mealybug sex pheromone, which is undetectable by humans.

Written by Panos Kakaviatos