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March insects, butterflies, frogs and lambs

Other March pages: FlowersTrees and shrubs • Birds Weather

Put your cursor over any photo on this page to see its caption, or click here to see more March butterfly and insect photos. For more information on butterflies see the Butterfly Conservation website.

One reason that migrant birds start returning from Africa at the end of March and native birds are breeding is that there are now more insects for them to eat. As well as the little swarms of gnats one gets all winter (usually seen dancing in the light of a sunset), flies, hoverflies, ants and ladybirds slowly increase during the month, as do various tiny flying insects (look for them on dandelion or celandine flowers)

The bumble bees you see are enormous queens that have emerged from hibernation and are feeding up and looking for a site to found their colony. It is only queens that overwinter in this way, having mated the previous autumn: all other bumble bees die off, including the workers, males and last year's queens, die before the winter. The same is true of queen wasps, who carry in them the whole hopes of their species, lying dormant in some cosy spot, and then emerging in March to look for nest sites.

On blossom or flowers you can be surprised to hear the hum of honeybees (the only bee species in which the whole colony overwinters) and as the month goes on they are joined by solitary bees, which do not live in colonies and simply raise their own young: there are 300 species of these in the UK. On the ground spiders become more active and under rotting logs woodlice seem to be become more numerous.

Several butterfly species also overwinter as adults. This is not technically hibernation - only mammals do this, slowing their metabolism to a very low rate. Instead butterflies "diapause": they shut off their metabolism entirely and become inert, except that they are able to flick back into life in an instant if disturbed. If the temperature rises above 15 degrees or so - something that seems impossible early in the month, but usually does occur at some point in the second half - they come back to life and start to look for mates.

Typically the yellow brimstone (the original "butter fly", but brilliantly disguised as a pale green leaf when at rest with its wings closed) is the first you see, flying purposefully across the landscape. But also look out for the peacock and small tortoiseshell - you often disturb them from country paths, where they lie basking in the sun - or the comma, with its jagged wing edges. Notice how the bright orange and red colours of these three butterflies actually provide perfect camouflage against the fallen leaves and still brown hedgerows in March. Notice too that their populations (though not that of the brimstone) are smaller in March than they are later in the summer. The reason for this is that it is tough to survive the winter, but the offspring of those that do grow to adulthood in the more favourable environment of the spring months

You may also see red admiral, a migrant which really should not be here at this time of year but which sometimes does manage to survive our winters. There is no evidence yet that they go on to breed: instead the first wave of red admirals to these shores consists of already mated females who arrive in May.

At the very end of the month it is also just possible that you might see a speckled wood (some of which overwinter as adults and some as pupae) or a holly blue, small white or orange tip, all of which overwinter as pupae. But all of these more normally appear in April. The orange tip feeds on cuckoo flowers and garlic mustard, and so appears when those flowers do.

Frogs and lambs

If walking past a pond early in the month you may see frogs mating, the smaller male hanging on grimly to the female's back. More likely you will see their jelly-like frogspawn. Frogs tend to lay in shallow ponds where there are no fish to eat the tadpoles, so you can see frogspawn even in ponds in parks and - occasionally and unwisely - in large puddles

Grass on lawns and in parks is cut for the first time sometime in the second half of March, and towards the very end of the month, pastureland in the countryside is just starting to lose its tired winter look due to new shoots of grass. It is no coincidence that this is also when lambs start to appear in the fields – they are bred to make the most of the spring field growth and sadly most are meat before the summer is out.

More March pages:

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