Butterfly wrangler, ‘I always loved bugs’

Jun 1, 2016 at 11:29 am
Blair Leano-Helvey
Blair Leano-Helvey Photo by Nerissa Sparkman

Like all good diplomats, they know how to work a room. Flitting from one spot to the next, they may only pause to acknowledge a bunch of flowers or take a quick sip of a drink before moving on to the real order of business. Facilitating education. Forging strategic alliances. Rehabilitating failed states. And of course, hatching plans for the future.

As ambassadors go, butterflies are no lightweights.

That’s one reason that Blair Leano-Helvey, 37, owner of Idlewild Butterfly Farm and its sister operation, Entomology Solutions, has put them at the forefront of her business. “People can relate to butterflies,” she said. Being surrounded by so much sailing, soaring beauty on a visit to the flight house — really, a tidy flower garden enclosed in netting — is an experience of transcendent luxury. It’s like swinging open the vault of a bank and finding impossibly lovely bits of confetti swirling in the air instead of the dull gleam of money. It leaves people feeling richer in the moment, but poorer afterwards when they start to wonder why they don’t encounter butterflies more often in their day-to-day. Leano-Helvey explains how the use of pesticides, combined with habitat loss through farming and property development, has decimated butterfly populations. She can then tell visitors that employing beneficial insects such as ladybugs and nematodes to control pests is both butterfly-friendly as well as a more cost-effective solution for everyone from the farmers and commercial greenhouse operators who make up about three-quarters of her customer base to the suburban homeowners who account for the rest.

What’s a bug bargain? A bag of a thousand ladybugs costs a mere eight bucks. But if you’re really buying in bulk, you can get a million nematodes for $18.99. That’s enough to cover 3,000 square feet and put paid to fleas, grubs and a number of other pests. Adult butterflies range from $5-$12 each, or $55-$120 by the dozen.

Leano-Helvey started Entomology Solutions in 2011, and opened the doors of Idlewild on June 1, 2015. Her job today is a two-winged creature. One is pest control; the other is butterfly and insect breeding. (She specialized in horticultural entomology in college.) “I always loved bugs,” she said, as if the slew of insect charms around her neck didn’t make that clear enough. “But I liked butterflies because they go through the complete metamorphosis.”

This kind of transformation seems to lead to others. Example No. 1, Idlewild itself. Situated on the corner of Logan and St. Catherine streets, the butterfly farm includes a white clapboard house, whose interior does duty as both retail space and grow lab — the latter not only for butterflies, but also for “show bugs” like the giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches that make kids squeal on tours. The flight house and garden extension can be found in the property’s backyard. It is easy to miss, even walking past on foot. But step inside, and you see it has transformed an otherwise unlovely stretch of Shelby Park into a kind of fairy kingdom inhabited by monarchs and painted ladies, where gardens of rue and hollyhock burgeon, and iridescent winged mandalas glow faintly from the walls.

Yet it’s not a property makeover, or even gentrification. There seems to be a kind of sympathetic magic at work in such transformations. Ovid, a poet who knew a thing or two about metamorphoses, claimed that affinities are the seeds of change:

“A war-horse dug into the earth is the source of hornets: If you remove the hollow claws of land-crabs, and put the rest under the soil, a scorpion, with its curved and threatening tail, will emerge from the parts interred: and the caterpillars that are accustomed to weave their white cocoons, on uncultivated leaves (a thing observed by farmers) change to a butterfly’s form, symbol of the soul.”

Example No. 2 of transformation is right in line with that sort of cultivation. Finding common ground, as it were. In 2009, Leano-Helvey made her first public appeal for the use of “beneficials,” also known as IPM, or insect pest management, to the Louisville Nursery Association. “I was basically heckled,” she said. Seven years later, she’s hosting its meeting.

It’s all part of a larger project of turning unfavorable, chemically-treated environments into ones that are favorable for life and growth. Or, as she quipped, “We have to get people off the drugs and on to bugs!” But putting the challenge into context is sobering. Right now, beneficials are the tiny exception in a landscape ruled by Roundup. She speaks more slowly as she articulates her mission. “People take insects for granted, but they do play a very important role in everything from pollination to predation.” Leano-Helvey pauses. “I’m a firm believer that, if it’s on the Earth, it has a purpose!”