Imagine a nose that is thousands of times more powerful than a human's when it comes to detecting subtle odors. Put that nose on a golden retriever, give it some extensive hands-on training, and voila-you've got the latest weapon in the winegrape growers' war on vine mealybug.
Dr. Bonnie Bergin, founder of Assistance Dog Institute in Santa Rosa, and her staff, has trained some very special golden retrievers, affectionately known as "sniffer dogs" by winegrape growers in Napa and Sonoma counties, to detect the female mealybug pheromone.
Early detection of the bug allows the grower to treat or remove a vine or two, alleviating any broad use of pesticides. Vine mealybug is an invasive species of insect that first showed up in Southern California about a decade ago. It has been slowly moving northward and isolated outbreaks of the pest have been found throughout the state.
What adds to the problem is that vine mealybugs are very difficult to detect, being nearly invisible to the naked eye. Mealybugs hide under bark and roots and dozens can fit inside of a one-inch square. They attack vineyards by feeding on the tender vines and leaving a heavy excretion of honeydew that promotes the growth of black, sooty mold. The vine mealybug has been held in check on the North Coast to date, and area growers are being proactive in their efforts to make sure it doesn't get established.
That's where the dogs and their sensitive noses come into play. Winegrowers in Napa and Sonoma counties are so excited about the program that they have donated $33,000 to pay for the dogs' training. Michael Honig is so committed to the program, he has joined the board of the organization.
For more information on the dogs visit the Assistance Dog Institute