Butterfly Bob’s memory strong at annual Wings in the Park event

“Oohs” and “ahhs” filled the air as Penn State Master Gardener Doug Ford released about 50 monarch butterflies into Snetsinger Butterfly Garden.

Had Bob “Butterfly Bob” Snetsinger been there Saturday to see the release, he might have said it was a sign his late daughter was there with him.

After all, his wife, Wendy Snetsinger, said Bob looked at butterflies as his daughter’s spirit after she passed away.

And that same butterfly garden created 20 years ago in her memory is now also in memory of Butterfly Bob, who founded and created Snetsinger Butterfly Garden at Tom Tudek Memorial Park.

The local entomologist established it in memory of his daughter, Clare, who was 17 years old when she died of cancer.

Like her father, she loved butterflies.

It was also fitting that the garden is housed at a park named for a man who also died at 17 and was a butterfly collector.

But in April, Butterfly Bob died at age 88 after battling cancer.

And on Saturday, the annual Wings in the Park event was loaded with special meaning.

“There’s so much to celebrate,” Pam Ford said. “It’s the 20th year of the garden, it comes after Bob passed away, and we’re still here doing education outreach, working with the community, and remembering the man who made this possible.”

Ford, Master Gardener education outreach director at the butterfly garden, helps oversee the garden with her husband, Doug Ford, who is in charge of community outreach.

Together, and with a team of about 80 others, they organize the annual event, which is in its ninth year.

The first year had 50 visitors. Last year there were more than 750.

The Fords did not know this year’s total.

It started Saturday morning with a pollinator parade and a release of butterflies at noon, which was the highlight of the event.

“One of our objectives is to help kids learn the joy of discovery and help the adults tap into their youth,” Pam Ford said. “We work with a lot of community organizations like churches and schools that grow satellite pollinator gardens, but the biggest challenge we face is kids with the fear of bees. If we show them fun and excitement while learning about bees and other insects, that fear goes away and they might not even realize they’re learning in the meantime.”

Other activities included insect exhibits and a scavenger hunt organized by fellow Master Gardener Betsy Whitman.

Whitman said the scavenger hunt allowed people to get a passport and collect stamps for things they found and activities they participated in, which were logged in the book.

“So many people just walk through the garden, but this is a way for them to actually engage in the garden and what we have going on, and learn,” Whitman said. “You’d think it’s just kids, but entire families are doing it. The adults are having as much fun as the kids.”

More than a dozen stations were set up in the 3-acre garden with community organizations such as the Penn State Extension Master Gardener Program, Centre Region Parks and Recreation, Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

There were also volunteers to guide people around the garden.

Pam Ford said that the nectar and host plants for female butterflies to lay their eggs are what makes the area a pollinator and butterfly garden.

“What many people don’t know is that host plants are usually trees and shrubs,” Ford said. “But every caterpillar, every butterfly eats and digests different plants, and digests them differently.”

When the garden was founded, it started with just a few plant and had five species of butterflies.

To date, Doug Ford said there are 36 species.

“We just want to continue his (Snetsinger’s) mission, and do it by working with others,” he said.

When Master Gardeners found that the maintenance crews from Ferguson Township were manicuring the field behind the garden, they asked them to limit their work.

Doug Ford said the area behind the garden is a crucial area that helps keep the garden sustainable. He said the area is also habitat for other creatures.

“It’s a part of stewardship to the earth and the community, and (we’re) doing a good job of working together to keep it that way,” Doug Ford said. “It’s a celebration of life in more than one way.”

Wings in the Park guests were also given a free pollinator plant to take home to encourage more people to grow pollinator gardens.

Britney Milazzo: 814-231-4648, @M11azzo