Tiny guests in polka-dot dresses

At first I figured the ladybugs were just visiting, but then I realized they were here to stay.

Ladybugs are, well, ladylike houseguests. I should know; I hosted dozens this winter. Living in an old farmhouse, I'm used to unexpected guests. I've had many spiders, a few unwelcome field mice, and even a precocious bird that figured out how to unlatch my screen door. But, before this winter, I had never hosted so many wild kingdom guests at once - and they all had the same polka-dotted outfit on.

From what I've observed, ladybugs are not shy. In fact, they're quite the exhibitionists. During their stay here, it was not uncommon for me to catch sight of one out of the corner of my eye and find myself watching her creep up a windowpane.

If she could get my attention, she was always willing to put on a show. A ladybug can turn wires into roller coasters and a Venetian blind cord into a tightrope. A group of them can turn an office into a circus fit for an entomologist.

All winter I had the urge to open the window when I saw a lady eager to get out, but, given the temperature, this was not an option. Although they were not sleeping in caves like the grumpy old bears in storybooks, they were still in hibernation. They were living for the promise of summer, and so was I. Together, we were ladies-in-waiting.

Occasionally I found myself whispering under my breath to a bug: "It may look sunny, lady, but it's cold out there."

The ladybugs came in droves. I'm sure they tapped their little exoskeletons on the windows to announce their arrival before finding cracks between my old hardwood floors and the wide pine-plank door frames.

That's just the kind of bugs they are.

When they first moved in, I didn't pay them any attention at all. I figured they were short-term visitors. But as the weeks extended to months, I realized these ladybugs were here to stay, and I was the one responsible for their rent.

Instead of finding this annoying, I found it amusing. By the time I made the realization, their charms had already won me over.

When I was a child, I would spend long, languid Southern summers at the community pool ferrying ladybugs to safety. I would watch their pin-thin legs helplessly chug along and I would offer my hand as a lifeboat.

In those shallow turquoise waters, they were eye level, so it was easy for me to study their colors, their legs, and their antennae. I became a bit of a naturalist via the ladybugs - a naturalist who smelled of chlorine.

This past winter, as I lifted ladybugs from the treacherous waters of a fast- filling bathtub, I was reminded of those childhood summers I spent as a ladybug lifeguard. I suppose, in a way, those cold-weather months were spent filling the seasonal equivalent of my former position.

As winter came to a close, I found myself rooting for the little ladies as they flew in circles and gathered around light bulbs as if they were campfires, just passing the time until spring.

I cheered them on toward the changing of the season, even when they showed up on the sleeve of my shirt and, to my chagrin, on the bristles of my toothbrush.

Other than the toothbrush incident - and the crash landing that happened in my ear when I made the mistake of sitting too close to my reading lamp - they didn't really bug me that much.

Now that spring has graced their favorite outdoor haunts, they've seen themselves to the door, floor crack, or window through which they came in. They've bid me adieu, and I'm surprised at how much I miss them.

I'm sure my winter guests are now excitedly exploring the landscapes they longed for while huddled on my windowpanes. But despite their busy warm-weather schedules, I'm sure they'll still find a way to spread a little natural wonder at a community pool near you.

Keep an eye out for them in the coming months, and feel free to lend a hand if you see a lady who'd rather not swim. I suspect that these ladies have long memories, and that they seldom forget the palm of a friendly homeowner.

If you take the time to help a ladybug in need, next winter you might get the opportunity to host your own polite traveling show.

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