Mother’s Day a Milestone for Pest Inspectors

Mother’s Day is the second busiest day of the year for the public when it comes to sending and receiving flowers. The busiest? Valentine’s Day.

But it’s the time in between those two holidays that are among the busiest every year for inspectors from San Diego County’s Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures.

They call it the “100-day War.”

They’ve nicknamed it that because of the sheer volume of flowers and plant packages that flood into San Diego County. And because that flood gives invading pests that could threaten our region’s $1.75 billion agricultural industry their biggest chance to hitchhike their way into our back yard.

These pests can hitch a ride from anywhere outside the county in various fruits, vegetables, trees, shrubs, any plant with root systems, and yes, flower shipments.

If certain invasive pests were to come in undetected and establish themselves in the county, they could devastate local agriculture.  

Fortunately, the County, and the public, have two outstanding guard dogs on duty to help prevent any invasion. Well, not exactly guard dogs in the traditional sense, but two well-trained and very well-equipped sentries. Venus and Drake are agricultural inspector dogs. The dogs and their handlers form the County’s first front to combat pests. They sniff thousands — literally — of incoming packages at FedEx, UPS and even U.S. Postal Service facilities.

The dog’s noses are so sensitive they can actually sniff out a single chocolate-covered cherry packaged inside a box.

While patrolling the piles of packages at shipping centers, if they come across something that just doesn’t smell quite right, or actually something that alerts their keen sense of smell, they scratch at the box to notify their equally skilled handler of their find. If it’s an unmarked or improperly labeled agricultural product, it’s opened and inspected.

In the past, they have found illegally shipped lime trees, fruits that are covered with exotic scales and mites, and even microscopic worms called nematodes that can devour root systems and plug up plant circulation systems, causing them to die.

“Drake and Venus can sniff out thousands of packages in a short period and their keen sense of smell has detected 10 significant pests this year” said Ha Dang, County Agricultural Commissioner. “Our inspectors and dog teams provide an essential and invaluable service in protecting our County’s agriculture.”

The County’s second front in the ‘100-day War’ is its skilled team of human agricultural inspectors, who also protect the County from unwanted pests, inspecting nurseries, some retail businesses and other “points of entry.”

Scientists have found that leaves are a pathway for damaging pests to enter the county – pests such as the red imported fire ant, an ant with a sting so painful that some families in areas that are infested do not let their children play in their yards; or the Coqui frog, a noisy pest from Hawaii that has a mating “croak” that is, literally, as loud as a gas-powered lawnmower. The risk is so great that inspectors check each load of ornamental nursery plants that come in from other states or countries; often, leaf-by-leaf.

“You can be sure that if it crawls, flies, or hops this way, the Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures is on the lookout for it,” said Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Jose Arriaga.

So when you get that box of flowers from someone special that came from out of the area, know that someone loves you and is thinking about you, and also remember Drake, Venus and the county agricultural inspectors who make sure it is coming in pest-free and not posing a threat to our county’s $1.75 billion agriculture industry.

This video from 2009 shows Friday, guided by her County handler, sniffing out dangerous pests. Friday is now retired.