Prison inmates raise ‘beneficial bugs’ for organic farming

Inmates at the Seminole County Correctional Facility, who have been growing their own vegetables for more than 10 years, are now raising thousands of beneficial bugs that attack insect pests and feed on troublesome weeds in Florida. The insect ”farming” program — the first of its kind in the nation — will generate about $2,000 a year for the inmate welfare fund at the facility and help inmates develop marketable skills for future employment.

From University of Florida :

SEMINOLE COUNTY INMATES RAISE ”BENEFICIAL BUGS” FOR UF AND USDA RESEARCHERS

Inmates at the Seminole County Correctional Facility, who have been growing their own vegetables for more than 10 years, are now raising thousands of beneficial bugs that attack insect pests and feed on troublesome weeds in Florida.

The insect ”farming” program — the first of its kind in the nation — will generate about $2,000 a year for the inmate welfare fund at the facility and help inmates develop marketable skills for future employment.

”The project is the result of a new partnership with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to help inmates learn about biological control — raising good bugs that prey on bad bugs and weeds — and reduce the need for chemical pesticides,” said Debra Taylor, a deputy who supervises the training program at the Seminole County facility. ”These beneficial bugs not only help control pests on our own veggie crops, but we are raising thousands of insects for researchers at the UF and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

Twelve women inmates participating in the biocontrol program receive training and certification from UF, which launched the project in cooperation with USDA, Taylor said. UF training and certification as ”insect scouts” — recognized by nurserymen and wholesale plant growers in Central Florida — could help the women find employment when they are released from the correctional facility.

Lance Osborne, a professor of entomology at UF’s Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka who developed the concept, said the program was started because there are no commercial biocontrol insect producers in Florida.

”Raising insects for biocontrol is labor intensive and expensive, which makes the project ideal for inmates in correctional facilities,” he said. ”With the help of a grant from USDA’s Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service, we launched the pilot project in cooperation with the Seminole County facility.”

He said inmates in Seminole County are now producing two different kinds of beneficial insects. One is an insect predator that controls pests on ornamental plants in greenhouses, and the other is a beetle that feeds on the leaves of tropical soda apple, one of the most troublesome weeds in the state.

In order to manage the whitefly pest problem in greenhouses where vegetables, herbs and ornamentals are grown, Osborne developed a biocontrol system that relies on the production of ”banker plants” for Central Florida growers.

”A banker plant is a plant that has been infested with both the target pest and its natural predator,” he said. ”For instance, Papaya plants attract the papaya whitefly, and a parasitic wasp that controls the whitefly on the papaya host plants as well as silverleaf whitefly on other greenhouse plants. As a result, an infested papaya plant becomes a bank of beneficial insects that can be placed in greenhouses to control ornamental pests, such as the whitefly, without applying pesticides.”

Osborne feels that the wasp is the ”best natural enemy” of the silverleaf whitefly pest in greenhouses. But, the wasp was not being commercially produced in large numbers, which is one of the primary reasons for starting the banker plant system at the Seminole County facility.

He said there is a demand for the new banker plant technology, which is not being produced anywhere else in the nation at this time. Banker plants are grown in one- to three-gallon containers that sell for $10 to $15 per plant, and demand is rapidly rising.

Inmates also are raising thousands of beetles (Gratiana boliviana) that will be released in pastures across the Florida to control tropical soda apple. The weed is so invasive that other plants cannot grow around it.

To combat the pest without using harmful herbicides, UF researchers traveled to South America where the weed originated and found a natural predator that feeds solely on the plant. After conducting extensive studies with USDA, UF researchers have begun releasing the beetles in pastures across the state to eliminate the weed.

”Despite positive test results, we do not have enough beetles available for release,” Osborne said. ”That’s why we turned to the inmates in Seminole County to help raise these beneficial insects; their work will be an essential part of our program to control this noxious weed.”

Taylor said the guidance and instruction offered by UF enhances the existing inmate agricultural program at the Seminole County facility, and the new biocontrol program has the potential to generate revenue that will benefit inmates and support additional training programs.

”If this USDA pilot project is successful, it could develop into a system where inmates could help society by reducing reliance on pesticides and save tax payers millions of dollars in the fight against new invasive pests,” Osborne said.


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