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Nature and Weather in South East England

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.

Insects slowly reappear in March, but this depends on how warm the weather is. Not surprisingly there are relatively few in the first half of the month, but towards the end there can be a noticeable uptick.

Most obvious are bumble bees. The ones you see at this time of year are enormous queens that have emerged from hibernation (species include buff-tailed, white-tailed and garden bumble bees, all of which look rather similar, and the red-tailed bumble bee, which is a bit more distinct). It is only the queens of these species that overwinter in this way, having mated the previous autumn: the workers, males and last year's queens all die at the end of the summer.

The new queens have thick fur which enables them to fly when other insects are still dormant, and their first task is to look for a hole (for example an abandoned mouse hole) in which to create their new colony. For this reason they are usually flying close to the ground. When they have found a suitable site, they amass a lump of pollen larger than themselves to provide food for their first offspring. Once the colony is established - usually sometime in May - there are workers to do the food gathering and the queen then spends the rest of her life underground, producing larvae.

Queen wasps also emerge from their winter dormancy and look around for nest sites, and on blossom or flowers you may be surprised to hear the rather summer-like hum of honeybees, the only bee species in which the whole colony overwinters. Other bees that can be on the wing in March include the common carder bee (another type of bumble bee, basically, identifiable by its tawny thorax: it is particularly fond of feeding on white and red deadnettle), as well as solitary bee species that do not live in colonies, but simply raise their own young, such as the the hairy-footed flower bee (which looks like a very black bumble bee and apparently likes lungwort and grape hyacinth) or various types of mining bee, which look a lot like honeybees, but feed singly rather than socially. Unlike honeybees and bumble bees, solitary bee species do not make a buzzing noise in flight.

Hoverflies also appear towards the end of the month, many of whom have evolved to look like bees to discourage predators. However, no bee hovers, which is one way of telling them apart. One other hovering insect which also appears at this time is the charming bee fly, which has a furry, chubby body, and feeds from flowers such as grape hyacinth much like a hummingbird, using its long proboscis. It even carries the imitation of bees as far as producing a buzzing noise as it flies.

Otherwise, as well as the little swarms of gnats one gets all winter (usually seen dancing in the light of a sunset), flies and various tiny flying insects (look for them on dandelion or celandine flowers) can emerge on sunny days. Look out too for seven-spot ladybirds basking in the sun - they metamorphosed from larvae to adults at the end of last summer and have lain dormant all winter: now their task is to breed. Spiders become slightly more active as the weather warms, but they are very unobtrusive: you may see a tiny one scuttling across a footpath.

Butterflies

Several butterfly species also overwinter as adults. This is not 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 may 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 provide perfect camouflage against the fallen leaves and still brown hedgerows in March.

You may also come across a 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 pupae and some as caterpillars) 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

Towards the 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. There has been a tendency in recent years, however, to have ewes give birth later in the spring (so as to reduce lamb mortality due to cold snaps?), so you may also still see heavily pregnant ones in the fields. Mature sheep that don't look pregnant, one suspects, are having their last feed before a one way trip to the market.

More March pages:


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