By Doug Skinner
Sometimes an impulsive idea pays off.
While scanning the Facebook page Butterflies in Indiana last week, I came across a mention of Idlewild Butterfly Farm and Insectarium in Louisville, Kentucky.
This time of year finds me consumed with butterflies, traveling to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, White River Gardens, Loblolly Marsh near Geneva and Irwin Gardens/Zimmerman Wetland near Brown County State Park. After making a call regarding hours and tour info, I was there an hour and forty-five minutes later.
Now I know what you’re thinking: A farm in the city? There are no butterfly cowboys (that would be a good name for a country-western song) and no fences, milking parlors or tractors at this kind of farm.
Story continues below gallery
Idlewild Butterfly Farm and Insectarium is a privately owned small business in Louisville that operates as an insect rearing lab, educational center and retail store. Owned and operated by degreed entomologists, Idlewild is a sister company of Entomology Solutions LLC, which was founded by Blair Leano-Helvey in 2009. She went on to open Idlewild Butterfly Farm in 2015.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected facility, Idlewild houses a number of insects, arachnids and other arthropods, including tropical species that cannot be found anywhere else in the state.
A few blocks off of Interstate 65 in the hardscrabble Shelby Park area of Louisville, a 100-year-old brick building adorned with a huge blue butterfly mural greeted me. The well-worn divot in the limestone front step told me that at one time this was a very happening place, and indeed, at its zenith, it was a popular neighborhood grocery.
Inside, a very warm and charming atmosphere awaited. A small retail shop sold insect and butterfly books, butterfly-rearing kits, and butterfly and insect related jewelry displays. The shop also offers butterflies and other insects for events such as weddings, graduations and funerals.
But the things that caught and held my attention — the eye candy of the trip — were the mounted and framed butterfly and insect collections worthy of the Smithsonian Museum. I kind of mumbled and stalled, not wanting to start the tour until the images were burned onto my retinas.
As part of a paid guided tour, they let guests hold and interact closely with many of the amazing creatures in the rearing lab and insectarium. People can pick up a praying mantis, or a Malaysian thorny devil stick, which is as big as a Cuban cigar.
Maybe your tastes run along the lines of large Madagascar hissing cockroaches or one of the many chrysalises of various butterflies. No, I did not hold the thorny devil. Hissing cockroach — nope.
Outside was the enclosed butterfly flight house, which operates during the warmer months and is stocked with several species of free-roaming butterflies and host plants. Here I saw such butterflies as the black swallowtail, yellow swallowtail, pipevine swallowtail and monarchs. Butterflies flew to and fro while zebra swallowtail caterpillars munched on paw paw leaves.
It is worth noting that Idelwild is not a conservatory, but rather a working farm. The commercial operation has tentacles in many areas besides butterflies, such as crop, greenhouse and lawn care. If you ask Leono-Helvey what her goals were, they would be to better the environment by educating people about what can be done with natural growing of plants and crops.
Natural growing is different from organic in that is uses naturally occurring, harmless insects as weapons of mass destruction against the bad insects. She currently sells these harmless insects to greenhouses, small farms and landscaping businesses, thus eliminating the need for environmentally dangerous insecticides.
Her goal is to do it cheaper, safer and better. In fact, her main goal is to leave the world a better place for her kids than she found it, and by extension that means our kids as well.
The overuse of insecticides that kill all stages of their life cycle, herbicides that kill host and nectar plants, climate change, logging and habitat destruction have created a hostile environment that has caused butterfly populations to severely decline.
The proverbial canary in the coalmine, the barometer of change, is the monarch. Once everywhere, a sighting now is talked about like it was a rare zebra swallowtail. Degradation of wildflowers, cooler temps and loss of the milkweed plant are the specific culprits for the monarch, and other species are dependent on certain host and nectar plants to complete their life cycle.
One of Leono-Helvey’s current projects is in conjunction with the Louisville Zoo for the propagation and release of 1,000 banded monarch butterflies on Sept. 23. She hopes that this event in particular, and her efforts in general, will bring catch the attention of Big Pharma, Big Ag, and a caring, informed public who love their nature.
What beauty, what inspiration butterflies give us in their short lives? Helping the monarch helps us all.
Idlewild Butterfly Farm
What: A privately owned insect-rearing lab, educational center and retail store.
Where: 1100 Logan St., Louisville, Kentucky
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday through October
Admission: $10 for adults, $7 for children ages 3 and up, $8 for seniors and those with military ID.
Information: Check Idlewildbutterflyfarm.com for special events, and their Facebook page for Creepy Things at Idlewild near Halloween and other events.
Visit Louisvillezoo.org for information about the release of 1,000 monarch butterflies on Sept. 23 and other butterfly events at the zoo.
Doug Skinner is a semi-retired veterinarian. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.