I've been undecided about whether to remove the cluster of bright red-orange ladybird beetles that took up residence in one corner of the living room ceiling two months ago. Huddling up there like a bunch of shiny red bumper cars at the carnival, the ladybugs' social behavior is like a shout: Don't eat me! I taste bad! It's true, they do. Outside, a few get eaten by birds not yet trained to know that the beetle's bold color pattern means it smells bad and tastes worse. Inside the house, single ladybugs occasionally wake up from their quiet hibernatory cluster and buzz cartoonishly around, bumping into furniture and presumably looking for aphids, one of their favorite foods.

I am not one for forced companionship. Tight clusters are not my thing. To be alone on a winter day, the sun bright enough to hurt the eyes and the sky blue, is a wide-awake thrill - probably more so because the margin for error is slim for a naked ape, even in the borrowed imitation fur of mittens and a down coat.

But to come in to hot chocolate with a friend and the cats by the stove, then off to hear Kit sing carols in the Newcastle church proved that the essential herd animal instinct was equally alert. As the pipe organ swelled and the choristers leaned in toward the center to join voices, the image that came to mind was that of a humming hive of honeybees in winter, circled in close and fanning their wings in a combined effort to keep the queen alive and warm on the darkest, longest night of the year.

Christine Parrish recommends www.mainemasternaturalist.org