Inmates join effort to wipe out bad bugs

The insect farming and scouting skills are vital to a UF pilot project.

Lance Osborne, left, a professor of entomology at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, checks papaya plants with Debra Taylor, a deputy at the Seminole County Correctional Facility in Sanford. Inmates grow beneficial bugs on the plants for researchers at UF's Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Thomas Wright/University of Florida
Published: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 12:51 a.m.
Seminole County jail inmates have joined the battle against destructive bugs and plants through an insect farming program involving the University of Florida and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
From behind a wire fence at the Central Florida jail's greenhouse and garden, some inmates are learning how to become "insect scouts" as well as how to raise an insect army that can be used to combat invasive weeds and insect pests.
Some bugs, which are found to be the natural enemies of damaging insects such as the whitefly that feasts on a variety of crops including tomatoes and cotton, serve as biological controls and an alternative to herbicides or pesticides. If the program expands around the state, it could make this natural approach to pest control more available and affordable to commercial growers and homeowners gardening in their backyards.
At the same time, inmates receive training that could get them a job once they serve their sentence.
"It just becomes massive when you get into the grand scale of commercial growing," said Seminole County Detention Deputy Debra Taylor about the demand for scouts. Taylor oversees the jail's Agricultural Training and Production Center.
These commercial growing operations are so large, they have to hire someone specifically to hunt for bugs, both pests and helpful insects, she said.
Payment for a scout can range from $6 to $20 per hour, said Lance Osborne, an entomology professor with UF's Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka, whose wife had worked as a scout. Osborne helped bring about the inmate training program in Seminole County.
The pilot program is funded by a $10,000 grant from the USDA, Osborne said.
Osborne and UF also provide free training for the inmates, said Taylor. After completing the eight-to-10 week course, they receive documentation from UF showing they are certified as scouts.
Osborne said a limiting factor in farming insects is the amount of labor that is needed to breed enough bugs. "It takes a lot of labor, and so it becomes very expensive," he said.
The professor said he had been trying to get the idea of using jails as a possible labor source to farm insects for years. With the money from the USDA and the jail's interest, the program came to life last year.
The Seminole County jail already had a garden and greenhouse where crops are grown hydroponically and food goes to inmates and staff. The area, Taylor said, also provides a spot where some inmates can sit, think and do their own personal rehabilitation. Now it is where inmates also hone their insect farming and scouting skills.
Since the Seminole County program launched, Osborne said, he's been contacted by facilities in and outside Florida interested in the program.
The inmates are now raising a type of wasp that attacks whiteflies, a bug that caused about $500 million worth of damage to crops nationwide in the late 1980s, and a beetle that destroys the invasive tropical soda apple plant.
Lise Fisher can be reached at (352) 374-5092 or

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