2016-06-01 / Features

Gardening for Life

The Legacy of Butterfly Bob Snetsinger
Maggie Anderson

In Wendy Snetsinger’s living room, master gardener Pam Ford has just been handed an old gardening tool — it’s a wooden handle topped with a three-prong claw on one side and a short trowel on the other. She’s kind of in awe.

“It looks like a rusty old pick,” she says, “but to me it’s Excalibur.”
Wendy doesn’t hesitate. “I would like you to have it permanently.”
Pam, full of emotion, hugs her old friend.

That rusty old pick represents their common bond — Wendy’s husband and Pam’s mentor Robert Snetsinger, an entomologist at Penn State and the namesake and progenitor of the Snetsinger Butterfly Garden in Tom Tudek Memorial Park. He died on April 16, 2016, at age 88, but the legacy he left behind is large — and still growing.

Snetsinger, better known as “Butterfly Bob,” was a champion of butterfly and pollinator habitats long before “colony collapse” and “native plants” entered everyday conversation. But Lepidoptera (the Latin name for the taxonomic order that includes butterflies and moths) were not his initial focus.

“He had been involved with pest and pest control work at the university,” says Wendy. “All sorts of insects that people run away from — termites and spiders and that sort of thing. No little kids would ever come near those things without screeching.”

His interest in more beautiful insects developed after his daughter Clare died of cancer at age 17. “That was very sad for us,” says Wendy, “but we like to do creative ways of using our angst and not just fall apart and be wallowing in sorrow and self-pity. That’s not the way our family is.”

Clare’s burgeoning interest in butterflies became Bob’s new focus. He learned of cultures that valued butterflies not just for their beauty but also for their spiritual qualities of transformation. In Mexico, for instance, the arrival of migrating monarchs coincides with the Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, holiday, and it is believed that the souls of ancestors return for a visit on the wings of the orange and black beauties.

“He sort of imagined that each butterfly was Clare in disguise,” says Wendy. “It just made him happy, and her beauty was right in front of him.”

Along with weekend workshops held at the Snetsingers’ home and around Centre County, Bob first took his love for Lepidoptera to a veteran’s home in Hollidaysburg, where he taught the residents about butterflies.

“It was therapy for the patients,” says Wendy. “He thought that these people are sort of isolated and they’re forgotten and that if they were to be involved with these beautiful creatures, it would be inspirational to them.”

He set up a garden, greenhouse and volunteer gardeners, and his work there went on for five years. A change in administration meant an end to that program, but those butterfly gardening workshops were about to transform into something bigger.

“There was an article in the paper about the fact that the Tudeks were donating a chunk of land to build a park that the public could use,” says Wendy, “and it was in honor of Tom Tudek who had died in a motorcycle accident. It turns out he liked butterflies and collected them, and so did my daughter Clare. They had that in common.”

So Bob proposed to develop a 3-acre section of that land into a butterfly garden, which he did singlehandedly, at least at first.

In 2006, 10 years after Bob began his weeding and planting in the park, Pam Ford was working to become a master gardener, which requires 50 hours of volunteer work.

“I emailed him and said I was a master gardener intern and I was interested in working with him,” says Pam. “I got this very short email back. I love that email — I think I’m going to frame it. He said he was unsure of the commitment the master gardeners would have to learning about butterfly gardening. Knowing my personality, well, I’m going to prove him wrong.”

And she did. “For two years straight, he trained us in a lot of different ways,” she says. “It was like having a 400-level course, a graduate course.” And what he was teaching was something few other people were working on at the time — gardening for pollinators.

Instead of cultivating flowers, he was cultivating a love for something many people ignore or even avoid — insects. “He had a way of teaching so that we could experience that joy of discovery that we have as children,” says Pam. “He would come up to me with his hands cupped and he would say, ‘Hold out your hands.’ The first time I was like, ‘He’s going to put a slug in my hands!’ I remember the praying mantis. I had never held a praying mantis in my hands.”

Pam’s husband, Doug, remembers that time as one full of excitement and activity. “She would come home after having these lessons with Bob and go on and on,” he says. “She’d come home with a plant, and then she’d come home with swallowtail caterpillars.”

As beautiful as butterflies are, they represent only the final stage in a complex life cycle. Monarchs, for instance, need leaves to eat as caterpillars, a strong stalk on which to affix their chrysalises, nectar to drink as butterflies, and then a place to lay eggs. The plant that offers all of that is milkweed; no other plant supports monarchs through their entire life cycle.

“What Bob was trying to communicate and teach all of us is that we’re all part of a larger system that needs to function well or it will collapse,” says Doug. “If we don’t have these butterflies that pollinate things, we don’t have food and we’re not going to be able to survive as a species. All of a sudden, you started thinking about gardens in a completely different way.”

“He said ecosystems are declining across the globe, and if people support life in their own backyards, it will make a difference,” remembers Pam. “Nature shrinks every day, but we have the capacity to support life in our own backyards, or in schoolyards, or in churchyards.”

And that is something that Bob and the master gardeners have shown the community by creating more than 30 satellite gardens. That program also stemmed from the butterflies themselves.

“A teacher came out to Tudek frantically looking for milkweed because they had all these caterpillars to feed,” Pam recalls. Bob and the master gardeners asked a bunch of questions, and eventually this one popped up: “What if we help you set up a garden on school property so you’ll have all the milkweed you want?” says Pam. “That was Easterly Parkway Elementary, and that was the first satellite garden. Now we put in between five and eight gardens a year.”

That’s in addition to the ever-present work at Snetsinger Butterfly Garden — as Pam calls it, “the mothership.” Besides keeping invasive plants out of the 3-acre plot, the master gardeners are always adding something new, like the healing garden Serenity Space, one of eight demonstration gardens within the larger garden.

That healing garden concept was something that Doug, assistant dean for undergraduate education in Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development, found intriguing. “Bob was so good at communicating the healing aspects of nature and how these natural spaces can really become very important therapeutic landscapes,” he says.

It turns out Doug was good at communicating that too. “The healing garden at the hospital would not have happened if Doug had not been involved with us at the Snetsinger Butterfly Garden,” says Pam. The Healing Garden at Mount Nittany Medical Center was planted on May 26 and June 1, forming a full circle for those close to Bob.

“The garden at Tudek started as a healing space for Bob,” says Pam, “and now there’s a healing space at the hospital.”    

“The thing that makes me so proud,” says Wendy, “is that he left a legacy for the community, and what could be better than that — to have lived a life that is so inspiring and it will go on in a beautiful way. You can’t help but feel joyful.” •SCM

So You Want to Plant for Pollinators
If you want to start a butterfly habitat in your own backyard, here are six plants the master gardeners recommend.

  1. There are five types of milkweed native to Central Pennsylvania, and any one of them will help monarchs thrive.
  2. The wide petals of the zinnia create a perfect landing pad for butterflies, who can’t hover.
  3. Echinacea, or purple coneflower, is a mid-season nectar source for all kinds of pollinators.
  4. Asters bloom from late summer into fall and provide food for traveling monarchs or overwintering butterflies.
  5. Mexican sunflower is an annual that can help fill the gaps between native perennials’ blooming periods.
  6. Like Echinacea, bee balm is widely regarded for its medicinal uses, but butterflies — and bees, of course! — adore the unique native flower.

Wings in the Park
July 23, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. | Snetsinger Butterfly Garden
Pam says the annual Wings in the Park has grown into one of the community’s favorite events, with lots of information and activities. “Everybody starts out by dressing up as your favorite pollinator and marching through the park,” she says. “If you’re celebrating something, you’re not going to be so afraid of it.” Besides the pollinator parade, there’s also a scavenger hunt, a monarch maze obstacle course, caterpillar cookies and more. Each family is given a native plant to grow in their own yard. This year, in honor of Bob, a butterfly release will take place during the event.

“Butterfly Memories” at Bellefonte Art Museum
June 5, noon to 4:30 p.m.
As part of its annual summer project, which this year is themed “Gardening in Central Pennsylvania,” the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County will exhibit photographic scans of butterflies created by photographer Jennifer Tucker and Gerald Lang as well as photographs by local naturalist Rose Franklin. The exhibition, with an opening reception at First Sunday, is dedicated to the work and memory of Bob Snetsinger.

Bee Happy Festival at Tait Farm
June 18, 1 to 4 p.m.
This family-friendly festival will celebrate the very important pollinator population with a live hive observation, Penn State entomology experts, children’s nature activities, honey samplings, cooking demonstrations, gardening for pollinators information, special guest the Honey Bee Queen and more.

Information about these plants and so many more can be found at

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