Zebra Swallowtail | Photo by Wayne Tuckson

When the Louisville Zoo decided to add a butterfly exhibit to this summer’s plans, it knew exactly where to turn. Blair Leano-Helvey owns Idlewild Butterfly Farm, which she opened in 2015. With her help, the zoo will be introducing a “Butterflies n’ Blooms” exhibition on May 20.

The centerpiece will be the new 1,000-square-foot outdoor flight house, which will contain hundreds of native butterflies and flowering plants.

Leano-Helvey laughed when she described building the flight house at the zoo as opposed to the one at the butterfly farm. “Exhibits have a lot of restrictions,” she said. For example, she couldn’t use duct tape to hold stuff together as she did at the farm.

Pupevine Swallowtail | Photo by Wayne Tuckson

By the time the event opens, the flight house will be populated by around 700 butterflies and that number will grow and the types of butterflies will become more diverse as the summer wears on. Upon entering the exhibition, guests will be offered a card that will help them identify the different species.

The butterfly exhibit culminates with Flutter Fest on Sept. 23, during which Leano-Helvey and volunteers will help the public tag and release 1,000 Monarch butterflies. They should arrive in Mexico after their migration sometime in December when they will be collected by researchers to determine where they came from. (If you’re wondering how to tag a butterfly, apparently there is a vein in their back wings under which you can tuck a tag.)

The contract with Idlewild is $100,000 for butterflies and $20,000 for the Flutter Fest event. Additional funding is being used for the flight house and the flowers.

The exhibit does present more than one challenge. “There are not enough commercial native breeders,” said Leano-Helvey. It takes a lot of time on the phone with a bunch of breeders to put the exhibit together, she said.

Idlewild Butterfly Farm’s flight house | photo by Melissa Chipman

In the flight house, there will also be a chrysalis exhibit where you can see butterflies emerging from their chrysalides. There will be a beneficial insect exhibit and a pollinator garden. All of the exhibits will be accompanied by educational components about how you can cultivate your backyard to help these insects thrive.

“Butterflies speak to the health of our planet and habitat preservation,” John Walczak, Louisville Zoo director told IL via email. “Their delicate nature and yet incredible adaptive endurance is a wonderful metaphor for the role we humans have in stewarding the health of our planet.”

Leano-Helvey said of her experience at the zoo, “I really enjoyed working with them.” So much so, she has another zoo project in the works.

Remember Idlewild’s delightfully creepy Spider House exhibit in which Leano-Helvey fills the flight house with spiders of various shapes and sizes each fall? Well, now it is moving to the zoo and this Halloween season, the giant zoo flight house will be filled with arachnids.

These are the types of butterflies lined up for the exhibition:

  • Painted Lady
  • Monarch Butterfly
  • Pipevine Swallowtail
  • Eastern Black Swallowtail
  • Buckeye Butterfly
  • Commas and Question Marks
  • Red Admiral
  • Mourning Cloaks
  • Zebra Swallowtails
  • Spicebush Swallowtails
  • Giant Swallowtails
  • and other Swallowtail species

The exhibit is free with zoo admission. Idlewild’s flight house will be operational as always. While you’re there, ask Leano-Helvey if you can hold some big bugs; it’s pretty awesome.


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