Will Sanders: Grape Listener


Most people who read or watch “Jurassic Park” focus on the dinosaurs. The storyline doesn’t typically incite discussions about how to protect Florida’s grape industry.

Will Sanders, however, a former graduate student in the University of Florida’s entomology department, was inspired by the well-known science fiction tale to invent a technology that would help save vineyards from hungry insects.

“They used sound to find dinosaur fossils. I thought I could use it to locate grape root borers,” Sanders said.

The grape root borer is one of the most serious threats to Florida’s $20 million-a-year grape industry.

As adults, these moths-which resemble wasps-do not harm plants.

But they do produce larvae that burrow into the soil and eat grape vines’ root systems. The feasting lasts for about a year and a half until the larvae transform into adults and emerge from the ground to repeat the cycle.

“One larva feeding on the roots can decrease yield drastically and even kill the grape vine,” Sanders said.

A pesticide called chlorpyrifos has proven effective against them, but it is highly toxic to birds, fish and honeybees, Sanders said. It is also suspected of causing cancer in humans.

Mounding-piling extra dirt around the base of the vine to suffocate the delicate moths as they try to break to the surface-is an environmentally friendly and extremely effective alterative, Sanders said. The only problem is that mounding is labor-intensive. If the growers knew which vines were infested, though, they could focus their efforts and cut costs.

That’s where Sanders’ listening device comes in. It pinpoints the location of all that munching.

He had at least one advantage over the fictional paleontologists in “Jurassic Park,” however. The insects that attack vineyards are considerably noisier than dinosaur bones.

“Once I thought that sound would be a good idea, I tried to think up a system that could amplify the tiny, otherwise inaudible, sounds that subterranean insects make,” Sanders said.

He sought out the expertise of Richard Mankin, a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who specializes in the detection and management of hidden insects.

Sanders and Mankin collaborated with two UF researchers-Oscar Liburd and Lukasz Stelinski-to adapt technology that Mankin had developed to find other insect species.

They sampled root systems at two Florida vineyards: one in Lithia, the other in Florahome.

The technology promises to reduce required mounding sites by about 75 percent, according to a an article the group wrote for Florida Entomologist.