Washington State Penitentiary's ‘butterfly wranglers’ aid wine industry

The star of the show. A monarch butterfly rests in the palm of David James' hand. If all goes well, in about two weeks hundreds of the butterflies will be taking wing from Washington State Penitentiary as part of a Washington State University research project.

The star of the show. A monarch butterfly rests in the palm of David James' hand. If all goes well, in about two weeks hundreds of the butterflies will be taking wing from Washington State Penitentiary as part of a Washington State University research project. Andy Porter

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WALLA WALLA — As they mark their first year in business, Washington State Penitentiary’s “butterfly wranglers” are moving into new fields, or in this case, vineyards.

The wranglers, a group of inmates who breed monarch butterflies at the prison as part of a Washington State University migratory research project, have taken on a new task to aid the state’s wine grape growers: counting mites and insects on grape leaves to provide up-to-date information about pests and their predators.

“This is a fairly new initiative,” said David James, WSU associate professor of entomology who has been involved with the monarch program from its start.

The inmates were trained this summer to recognize, identify and enumerate all arthropods on grape leaves, including spider and rust mites, which are of particular concern to growers.

In an article for the WSU Viticulture and Enology Extension newsletter, James said the mite survey was long overdue.

A detailed survey on grapevine mites was done by WSU in 2001-2002, but “a lot can happen in 10-plus years, especially in the rapidly expanding Washington grape industry,” he wrote.

The trouble with mites is that they are very tiny and to do a mite survey “you need to collect a lot of leaves and spend many hours peering down a microscope recording, and counting, what you see.”

This is where the WSP inmate workers play a vital role.

The prisoners recruited for the program have proved to be a highly motivated workforce who take great pride in doing their job, James said.

To date, the inmates’ work has found generally small populations of spider and rust mites and a healthy number and diversity of insect predators, which keep mite populations in check.

“This data has largely originated from the new ‘lab’ at WSP,” James wrote.

Although the survey is still in its early stages and the workforce is still learning, “the signs are good that we are creating some valuable entomological expertise at WSP that will benefit WSU and the Washington grape industry.”

The next step will be for the inmates to begin rearing smaller, more delicate native butterflies as part of a project to integrate native plants and pollinators into vineyards.

That will hopefully begin next year, James said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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