Leano-Helvey, owner of the Idlewild Butterfly Farm and Insectarium

By Carol Lea Spence
Photography by Matt Barton

They flit about in the August heat, orange splashes against pink, purple, and yellow blossoms, landing lightly as a dust mote for a drink and a dusting of pollen. We may admire their beauty and delicacy, but monarch butterflies in late summer are about to embark on an undertaking that would defeat less fragile creatures. At the Idlewild Butterfly Farm and Insectarium, owner Blair Leano-Helvey and her staff make sure their butterflies are up for the task.

In a few weeks, the insects would set off, buffeted by winds, soaked by rains, hunted by mice and other critters, on an epic migration to central Mexico. There, they’ll overwinter by the millions in the high elevations of Mexico’s oyamel fir forests.  

The monarchs that survive the winter begin their reverse migration in March, making their way to Texas, where they lay their eggs and die. While only one generation makes the trip to Mexico, each succeeding generation takes a leg of the journey back to Canada.

Tough enough to make a thousand-mile journey, yet monarch populations are in peril. Because they concentrate in just a few areas, any climate- or human-related disturbance can result in large losses. Deforestation in Mexico threatens them. Climate change and additional habitat loss throughout their North American range jeopardizes them as well.

Despite this dreary prospect, Leano-Helvey is determined— determined to leave a world for her children where pollinators and beneficial insects thrive. She began the butterfly farm as an offshoot of her biocontrol business, Entomology Solutions, which she started in 2009. While at UK, Leano-Helvey said sometimes she was horrified by what she saw in agricultural practices relying on pesticides to control destructive insects. She resolved to change some of those practices, focusing on greenhouses and even homeowners who were seeking a natural way to manage pests, such as thrips, spider mites, aphids, or fleas.

“There are several beneficial mites we use. Most of them are native, so a lot of them will colonize the areas. They’re changing the ecosystem for the better in and around greenhouses,” she said.

Her business now reaches well beyond Kentucky. Some of the insects she breeds, such as shield bugs, a beneficial stinkbug, get shipped to the West Coast. And she supplies other USDA-approved insectariums around the country with exotic insects for their living collections.

Leano-Helvey got her bachelor’s degree in entomology from the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. While an undergraduate, she worked on a graduate-level project in insect physiology in Douglas Dahlman’s lab. Despite that experience, she just couldn’t picture herself with a career in academia.

“I didn’t think I wanted to go on and do a master’s degree or Ph.D. I thought about it, but I always liked running things,” said the woman who now runs two businesses.

Looking for something new while in the midst of running Entomological Solutions, Leano-Helvey started raising butterflies to sell at farmers markets. “When you peddle insects, you'd better be creative,” she explained. Her market customers enthusiastically bought her entire inventory. That success, and the fact that “My husband was planning to evict all my bugs, because they were flying around the house,” led Leano-Helvey to the Small Business Association.

The experts at the Louisville office of CAFE’s Kentucky Small Business Development Center helped her assemble a new business plan. She visited other insectariums and butterfly farms around the country and, in 2015, built a containment facility for the company she named Idlewild Butterfly Farm and Insectarium, which she describes as “a working farm with tiny livestock.” The name comes from the original name for the steamboat The Belle of Louisville.

“We were going to call it Madam’s Butterflies, but it didn’t quite have the right ring; it sounded more like a brothel,” Leano-Helvey laughed. “Though we are a brothel of sorts — a butterfly brothel.”

Leano-Helvey holding insect in lab

Leano-Helvey displays one of the many exotic insects she and her staff raise in the insectarium.

At the time of our August visit, she and her staff were busy producing 1,000 monarchs for release during the Louisville Zoo’s annual Flutterfest in September.

It’s not easy breeding butterflies. Viruses and bacterial diseases can take their toll, so the staff is very careful to keep the facilities spotless and to quarantine insects the minute they show signs of disease. The monarchs do their best to help though; it turns out they are quite promiscuous. Watermelon is the aphrodisiac of choice when Leano-Helvey is enticing her butterflies to mate.

“If we need them to pair, we give them a little. It’s like oysters.”

But outside the lab, where watermelon is not on the menu, males, distinguished by a black spot on each hind wing, won’t let much get in their way. Leano-Helvey said she sees the wild males mating with confined females through the farm's flight house netting all the time. There are plenty of wild males, and females, outside her flight house, since she has taken care to plant pollinator-friendly plants around the small, urban property. Berry bushes ring the property, and within its borders bloom nectar-rich plants such as Joe Pye weed, New England aster, purple coneflower, and lantana, as well as the sole food a monarch caterpillar will eat, milkweed. Despite the city’s not-to-be ignored presence, where the sounds of traffic and a passing train permeate, where exhaust fumes tinge the air, and buildings are squeezed onto miniscule lots, the space thrums with butterflies. Leano-Helvey said she chose the site because it is not an area where people typically spray chemicals on their lawns. In short, her butterflies would be safe from humans.

Inside her facility, her staff carefully maintains a lab where they care for, import, and breed tropical insects, which the company sells or trades to other USDA-permitted facilities, zoos, or insectariums. They also use them for their educational programs, such as their Halloween-themed Creepy Things, which gives children and adults the opportunity to get to know creepy-crawlies that they may otherwise fear. On top of getting to view nocturnal insects under infrared lights, speakers such as UK 4-H/youth development extension specialist Blake Newton were on hand to talk about such things as medical entomology. “Not for the faint of heart” the Facebook event page proclaimed, which of course brought in lots of curiosity seekers.

And that's what Leano-Helvey hopes to do, because for her, it’s all about educating people. School groups routinely tour Idlewild, and Leano-Helvey, her staff, and other entomologists such as Adam Baker, a graduate research assistant in UK’s Department of Entomology, visit schools all over the state, teaching people that they can make a big difference with small actions. Even planting a couple of pots with pollinator-friendly flowers on a patio will make a difference, they tell students, hoping that information will make it home to their parents.

“We talk about why insects are important, how they benefit humans. Most of what goes on in the insect world is unnoticed, because it’s at such a small level,” She said. “We talk about pollination, we talk about climate change.”

Leano-Helvey in garden with Blake Newton, Entomologist

Blair Leano-Helvey and Blake Newton examine the nectar producing system of a zinnia in the farm's flight house.

Idlewild has four employees, two of whom, Rachel Barger and Rachelyn Dobson, are also alumni of the UK Department of Entomology. They also rely on a few contractors to develop programming. Newton is currently helping them develop next-generation science-standard aligned curricula.

“I may not want to be in academia, but we depend on academia,” Leano-Helvey said. “That’s what keeps us going and makes sure we’re giving out correct information.”

During a visit to the facility, Newton explained why Idlewild's work is so important.

“Butterflies and caterpillars could be the canary in the coalmine – some of the first-line creatures that get hit when something like climate change alters the environment. Caterpillars are very particular about what they eat. If their food disappears from a local area, they become extinct from that area," he said. "But when you have a whole area where the climate changes, so plants that used to grow there can’t anymore, that means your butterflies can’t be there anymore either. We want to find a way to teach kids that.”

Leano-Helvey said they do a lot of well-attended workshops. “I think people are looking for nature. When I was a kid, I would spend many summers in southeastern Kentucky where my mom grew up. I had this perception that you had to go to the farm to find insects. But outside, here in urban Louisville, you’ll see how many different pollinators and critters are flying around.”

Idlewild Butterfly Farm and Insectarium welcomes visitors to tour the facilities or attend one of their workshops.  For more information about the farm and insectarium, visit their website at https://www.idlewildbutterflyfarm.com/. ◆

Caterpillars on a plant

Monarch caterpillars