Dog Sniffing for Invasive Insects | Taste of the Wild

There’s no satisfying the appetites of spotted lanternflies. Since appearing in Pennsylvania in 2014, these pests, indigenous to China, have been feeding on valuable grape vines, fruit trees and hardwoods, leaving behind a wake of destruction. Specially trained scent-detection dogs may be the last line of defense in stopping the spread.

Lanternflies suck sap from stems and branches, which weakens plants and trees. As they feed, they leave behind a sugary, sticky substance that attracts other insects and encourages black mold growth, which further damages the plants.

Initial estimates by economists at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences tabulate lanternfly damage at $50 million in economic losses each year and 484 lost jobs just in southeastern Pennsylvania. If they spread to the rest of the state, it could lead to at least $324 million in damage annually as well as about 2,800 lost jobs.

The USDA has also confirmed that the spotted lanternfly has spread to Virginia, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. To help curb the spread, scientists are studying the insect’s biology and behavior and employing tactics from chemical controls and natural insect predators to travel quarantines and conservation dogs to sniff out insect eggs.

Dispatching lanternflies before they hatch

Adult lanternflies generally die when temperatures drop at the end of the fall. But before they do, they lay egg masses containing up to 50 eggs each. The eggs can protect immature stages of the insect until they hatch in the spring. Destroying the egg masses before they hatch helps reduce the lanternfly population the following year.

But the egg masses blend into the environment and are easy to miss. Experts at the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine wondered if dogs could be trained to track down egg masses by scent.

Scent detection training

Researchers collected egg masses from trees, froze the eggs to kill them and trained the dogs to detect the scent in a laboratory setting. Then the researchers hid live eggs in an outdoor setting. Within a few sessions, the dogs transferred their skills with dead eggs to being able to sniff out live ones.

When dogs find eggs, they typically freeze and alert handlers to the location of the eggs. Dogs are generally rewarded with treats or toys and praise.

Currently, dogs have correctly identified egg masses with 95 percent accuracy. At the same time, they are able to ignore other potentially distracting scents 93 percent of the time. The ability to track down lanternfly eggs, whether they’re dead or alive, means the dogs can put their scent detection skills to work in any location or season, to help rid the area of this destructive invasive species.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.