Saturday, August 20, 2016

What This Butterfly Farmer is Reading, Watching, and Listening to...

By Megan M. Seckman



Photos by Melissa Donald


Blair Leano-Helvey flits around the insectarium like the moths and butterflies that surround her. Dozens of wings flutter and skim the netting of the tents; the butterflies reveal their gorgeous wingspans and copulate freely. Blair, too, bats her wings against their tents as she lovingly tends to them: pouring Gatorade onto paper towels for their nourishment, spraying them down with water, crooning over their beauty and behaviors within as if they were her own children.

“Come here,” she says, motioning to me enthusiastically. “That is butterfly sex, riiiiight there!” She points. “We love sex here! Look at you,” she croons adoringly to the attached pair. Then she turns toward me to explain, “If they aren’t mating, there’s no paycheck!”

Blair, at 37, has long had an affinity for bugs, but her personal metamorphosis into entrepreneur was a lengthy and complicated one. This mother of two was a classically trained violinist in her former life — her pupal stage, if you will. At the University of Kentucky, she earned a degree in agriculture with a specialization in entomology, but she also minored in music and biology. Out of college, she waited tables and worked in dentistry and maxillofacial surgery offices. After applying to the University of Louisville’s dental program and being turned down, she decided to pursue her passion: bugs.

(L-R) Outside of butterfly house; Zebra Tail butterfly; inside butterfly house 
Now Blair is the owner and operator of Idlewild Butterfly Farm in Shelby Park. Idlewild is a three-fold business that 1) works with growers to break their addiction to pesticides by introducing beneficial insects into their farming practices; 2) farms butterflies for release for special occasions such as weddings, memorials, and educational purposes; and 3) houses an insectarium, a USDA-inspected facility that imports insects from around the world to sell to other facilities and educate the public.

Buckeye butterfly 
“When I started, I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but I think I’ve figured it out,” Blair reflects with a laugh as she hovers over a cage of orchid mantids, watching them devour the flies she just released into their domain. “This business was great for me at first because I was never very good at working for other people — I had to find a way to work for myself. But this has really been great for me over the years in that it has made me more political and outspoken. Ninety-nine percent of my growers are heavy-handed chemical users, and most of the research done through the universities is funded by chemical companies. It’s my job to educate people about beneficial insects. This is science! This business has turned into my own private protest against chemical companies.”

(L-R) Monarch caterpillar. The mesh enclosure hold Monarch butterflies that have hatched and Monarch Chrysalis.


Blair motions me over to a large aquarium filled with giant Malaysian walking sticks about the length of my forearm. “Want to hold it?” she asks, eyes wide with inquiry. I pause and nod reluctantly. “See? We get bug-lovers out of the closet.”

Blair has a variety of encased beetles. 


What is this bug-lover reading, watching, and listening to?

Reading: 
As an entrepreneur and mother, Blair does not have time for much pleasure reading. Lately, however, she has been consumed with reading scientific journals about the progressive green industry and tends to keep up with the University of Kentucky’s Agricultural Journal.




She is interested in the research surrounding the medical benefits of cannabis. This website Cannabisscience.com has inspired her to speak out about this topic. “A lot of these things [like the medical benefits of marijuana] I never used to talk about, but why not?” she says. “It’s bulls*** not to, is how I see it. If it’s on this earth, it has a purpose.”

Blair holds a Mourning Cloak butterfly.


Watching: 
This butterfly lady doesn’t watch a lot of mainstream media and instead likes to take time to marvel at the beautiful network of life in nature. But every nature lover has her 21st-century weaknesses. Here’s a list of what Blair is binge-watching these days:
  • Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
  • Ancient Aliens (History Channel)
  • Reruns of Golden Girls and Little House on the Prairie. “I could take a trivia test on these shows and ace it!” Blair says.


Listening To:
With a former background in classical music, Blair’s music tastes are quite diverse. Visit her butterfly haven in Shelby Park, and you just might hear:
  • Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart
  • The Sugarhill Gang
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Nothing Fancy


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