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Pterodactly via The Oatmeal:

In which Hank talks about butterflies, which were hatching like crazy in the Bitterroot valley this weekend.

So yeah, it was really amazing. They were constantly landing on us. They were all the way from the treetops to the path in front of us. Hundreds of thousands of Western Whites. This isn't a particularly unusual event, but we totally lucked into it. It wasn't intentional or anything.

We also saw mourning cloaks and swallowtails and the really tame one that I got those RIDICULOUS close-ups of was a mystery to me so I asked twitter, and the consensus is "probably an eastern comma" but anglewings all look very similar, so we're not sure. We'd need to look at it's genitalia, probably.


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A Bunny
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Good morning, John. You left me in Missoula, and I forgive you. But I don't know if you're going to forgive yourself because this weekend Katherine and I went hiking in the Bitterroot Valley, and we came across a hatch of butterflies.

It's probably safe to say that Lepidoptera is the most beloved order of insects. Generally we think of insects as creepy, bitey, stingy, gross, ugly, yucky bugs. And then you have butterflies, and people, like, beg to be covered in them. "Put the bugs on me!" No other bug does this work for. {Flashing text reads: except ladybugs.}

So Lepidoptera is the order that contains butterflies and moths, and you might recognize "optera" from "pterodactyl" and "ornithopter." "Lepid," though, you probably don't recognize, comes from the word for "scales," and that doesn't necessarily make sense to you. Except, butterflies have scales! Carl Linnaeus- the guy who named the order, "Lepidoptera," and also the guy who came up with the current system that we have for naming species, if you're curious. Important dude- looked at butterflies under a microscope and said, "Oh my God! They are freaking covered in scales! That's crazy!" That's a direct quote from his journal. "That's... crazy!"

When I was in grade school, I told this to a kid named Del. I said, "Butterflies have scales on their wings, and if you touch them the scales will rub off and they will die." Del was like, "That's ridiculous, look that butterfly has no scales on him." And I was like, "No, they're microscopic. You have to..." and then he punched me. True story! Smartness can be intimidating. Some people punch in response to intimidation, so let that be a lesson to us all: Stop being smart!

Most of the tens of thousands, I'm pretty sure, of butterflies we saw were Western Whites. We also saw a bunch of other species, but most of them by far were the Western Whites. Western Whites are very common. They look pretty much exactly the same as Checkered Whites, if you have Checkered Whites where you live. The only difference between Checkered Whites and Western Whites is that Western Whites live in mountains, and Checkered Whites live in the plains. The other difference- there's two- is that they have incompatible genitalia. Lepidopterists, people who study butterflies, sounds like a nice beautiful job, but mostly they spend their time staring at butterfly genitalia. It's pretty much the only reliable way to differentiate between species. So if you're thinking about switching your career path to lepidopterist, just know that... A lot of butterfly genitalia in your future.

Walking through the forest filled with butterflies will make you think a lot. At least, it made me think a lot of things. It made me think about bell curves, and how, at one point, there will be one butterfly left alive in that forest. And at one point there was only one adult butterfly that had hatched. And in between, it's a curve. But at that very edge parts, it was one. It made me wonder whether people can still care about nature if they don't get the opportunities that I have to go out and experience it and see how amazing it is. And then out of the corner of my eye I noticed all the rose petals in the water and I thought, "That's weird, there's not a lot of flowering plants right now. I wonder what all those petals are from." And then I realized, "Those are not flower petals. Those are butterflies."

Just like our economy goes through booms and busts so to do the economies of nature. "So to do," is that grammatically correct? It doesn't sound like it, but I think it is. There were so many butterflies in the forest that every predator was full. The chipmunks, which don't even eat butterflies, were eating butterflies because they were everywhere. The chickadees were so full they could hardly fly. The spiderwebs were torn apart by butterflies, way more butterflies than any spider could ever eat. Bees! Bees were attacking butterflies. I didn't know they did this. I saw it happen. Attack a butterfly, chew off it's wings, and then fly away with the body. And there were some bees that didn't even bother chewing off the wings, and they would fly away with the whole butterfly making it look like this dead butterfly, unmoving dead butterfly, was flying away. It was very strange.

When I started to notice the dead butterflies everywhere, that's when I started thinking about the main thing that I thought about on this hike: the energy that makes it all happen. The energy of the sun passing into plants, passing into caterpillars, passing into butterflies, passing into bees, passing into spiders, into birds until finally the energy is let loose again, it's free again to dissipate into the universe as energy wants to do. Some days it seems to me like the purpose of life is to convert energy into beauty, and I know that that's not true. I know that that's not rationally true, but some days it's okay for things to not be rationally true.

John, I will see you on Monday.