KENNEBUNK — Arranged in three rows, 12 white boxes lay on the floor of Kennebunk’s Animal Welfare Society on Sunday morning.

The configuration of boxes were a training ground for five dogs — Cami, Captain, June, Hopper and Tempe — to practice detecting the smell of a certain type of insect egg, a cluster of which was hidden in one of the boxes.

With surprising accuracy, the dogs were able to successfully identify the box that held the eggs by pawing, biting, or sitting intently in front of the box.

Early in the morning, Captain beelined straight for the box with the insect eggs, wagging his tail vigorously and receiving a treat for his good work. The sixth dog in their cohort, Woody, was absent that day.

Sunday’s exercise is part of an innovative citizen science project aimed at stopping the spread of one of the United States’ most dreaded invasive insects: the spotted lanternfly.

A Doberman named Tempe investigates a box that may hold spotted lanternfly eggs. Courtesy photo/Melissa McCue-McGrath

The spotted lanternfly is originally from mainland China and came to the United States a decade ago. In that time, it is estimated to have caused tens of millions of dollars in annual economic losses in Pennsylvania alone, the state where it originally appeared.


And while there is no active infestation of the spotted lanternfly in Maine, spotted lanternfly eggs were discovered in the Pine Tree State in 2020. Spotted lanternfly has also been seen in neighboring New Hampshire.

The woman who led Sunday’s session is dog trainer Melissa McCue-McGrath of Kennebunk. She’s one of two trainers in New England selected to participate in a study that hopes to substantiate research indicating that dogs can be trained to detect SLF and other harmful agricultural or environmental concerns.

In spring 2023, McCue-McGrath learned that researchers at Texas Tech University and Virginia Tech were looking into how dogs can help combat spotted lanternfly spread with the help of a $475,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

They conducted an initial study that found that dogs can successfully detect spotted lanternfly. The next phase of the research is focused on how dogs trained in “odor detection work” around the country could plug into the project and potentially form a force to detect the harmful insects.

“(We) hope that (these dogs) can be a deployable force,” said Dr. Erica Feuerbacher of Virginia Tech during a webinar in May 2023 explaining the project.

“The project is really a proof of concept. We’re investigating whether the citizen science approach can work, and what kind of folks and dogs have success and like to participate,” she said. Feuerbacher also hopes that the project can demonstrate the usefulness of citizen science as early detection forces for combating other environmental and agricultural concerns.


McCue-McGrath, who submitted an application to take part in the project last spring, was a strong candidate to be involved in this research. Endlessly enthusiastic about dogs, she has 20 years experience working as a dog trainer and a behavioral consultant.

“I have always been completely fascinated with how dogs see the world, and how animals see things so very differently than we do,” said McCue-McGrath.

She’s especially passionate about the power of a dog’s nose. “Dogs can smell 40 feet under your feet,” she explained, and “when our dogs are walking down the street and sniffing every phone pole, every blade of grass … that’s them checking Facebook, that’s them reading Tolstoy.”

She moved to Kennebunk from Boston three years ago and has been doing “scent training” — teaching pooches how to search for and identify smells like birch and clove — with local dogs in the area through the Animal Welfare Society.

McCue-McGrath encouraged her scent training students to also apply to be involved in the project, and six dogs and their owners, each considered a “team,” were selected to participate as volunteers.

A little bug that brings destruction


The spotted lanternfly is a distinct-looking insect. When fully grown, the pest is about the size of a quarter and has black dots on brown wings. When the insect’s wings are spread, you can see a distinct pair of orange-y red wings below its brown exterior. A younger spotted lanternfly is black with white spots.

Spotted lanternfly adults. Sarah Scally, Assistant Horticulturist, Maine DACF

The invasive species first appeared in the United States in Pennsylvania in 2014, and is currently found in 17 states, including Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

“They are moving rather rapidly,” said Dr. Mizuho Nita, a plant pathology and plant disease researcher at Virginia Tech who also spoke during the May 2023 webinar.

The bugs can feed off of a long list of plants, including grape plants, apple, maple, poplar, walnut and willow trees – though its preferred host is the tree of heaven, itself an invasive species from Asia, according to Nita.

The insects feed on the sap of plants, which can cause them to wilt, defoliate and die. What’s more, the bugs produce a pee – called honeydew because of its high sugar content – which can cause mold to grow on hosts.

State officials have worked to slow the spread of the spotted lantern fly with quarantine restrictions, which are currently in place in Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Pennsylvania, according to New York State Integrated Pest Management.


The spotted lanternfly attempts to skirt quarantine by laying eggs — which looks like a smear of mud — on tree bark, outdoor gear that may move, like a lawnmower or bike, or a vehicle. “They’re good hitchhikers,” said Dr. Nita. Their ability to latch on to vehicles means they actually take roads to spread around the country, he said.

The bug is poised to be a huge economic threat to the United States if left unchecked. In Pennsylvania, for example, economists at Penn State found that if the invasive species is not contained, the state’s economy would lose at least $324 million annually, in addition to the loss of about 2,800 jobs.

Sectors that have already been hit hard in Pennsylvania, according to the study, include nursery operators, Christmas tree growers, and fruit growers – grape growers in particular. The study, published in 2019, found that in just Pennsylvania’s quarantine zone, the impact of the spotted lanternfly was already estimated to be roughly $50 million per year in losses.

Luckily, though, Maine itself is at lower risk of spotted lanternfly infestation compared to warmer states around the country. A study released in September 2023 found that Maine’s climate was less than ideal for spotted lanternfly reproduction.

Six Kennebunk dogs are training for two tests

At the Animal Welfare Society on Sunday, the dogs spent the morning sharpening their noses to the scent of spotted lanternfly eggs (which had been neutralized so they were not a threat).


As part of their training, each dog has been exposed to the scent of the spotted lanternfly eggs and given some sort of treat to create a positive association with identifying the smell.

The 12 boxes McCue-McGrath had laid out contained different things inside, including mulch, tree bark, a rope toy, a squeaky toy, and the eggs.

Spotted lanternfly eggs in mesh. Courtesy photo/Melissa McCue-McGrath

“It’s the birch and the mulch that are throwing them,” said McCue-McGrath, an observation that is consistent with what Texas Tech researchers found when they did their earlier study of a canine’s ability to detect the eggs.

McCue-McGrath said that after four weeks of training, the dogs can identify the eggs with about 70 percent accuracy.

The dogs are training up for two tests, according to McCue-McGrath, the first of which uses boxes and is similar to the exercise performed on Sunday. The teams must correctly identify the spotted lanternfly eggs in 80 percent of the odor recognition test trials in order to pass.

And later this spring, the dogs will have to find the eggs planted somewhere outside, simulating the conditions of actually finding them in the wild.

“To see them be so successful is super heartwarming,” said McCue-McGrath of the training so far. “And it really just goes to show how hard these owners are working and how smart these dogs really are.”

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