Anything Goes with LEGOs..

I’ve been searching for ways to improve my creativity with photography. I came across someone using LEGOs as props. I really like this idea! So, I figure I’ll try and stretch my imagination from time to time using these little guys. Anything goes with LEGOs.

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Week 16..

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Garden is growing. Should post pics soon. Peas reaching for string trellis, lettuces ready for another harvest, new seedlings coming up, tomatoes and peppers ready for transplanting, too. Had to open the netting to put the trellis in for the peas. Let’s hope the critters stay away…

I have literally had NO chance to take pictures of birds since my Dogwood tree has bloomed. I got out today, but it’s the first I’ve even seen birds feeding. I watch early in the mornings…nothing. I watch in the evening….nothing. The activity has completely fallen off since the winter visitors left. I no longer see my Juncos, and my flocks of finches have really thinned. The most common bird I see in the yard now is a Robin.

However, today, I did see some birds…finally. One Goldfinch male, two House Finch males, a pair of Eurasian Tree Sparrows, a Song Sparrow, and a couple of doves. That was it, and not at the same time. Those are the pics you will see. I have really been wanting to get the flowers in the background, but like I said, haven’t had the opportunity since the birds haven’t been visiting. My guess is they are nesting and starting to breed, as I’ve seen the resident Robin build a nest under my eaves.

Also in the pics will be Cedar Waxwings and a Chipping Sparrow. New sightings. The Waxwings a couple of weeks back, and the Chipping Sparrow yesterday. Hope all is well with you.

St. Louis Zoo…

Well, I’ll get to the zoo in a minute. But, first the birds and garden update…

Birds….haven’t had a lot of time with the garden going in lately. However, I can tell you my goldfinches are coloring up with every day I look. Spring is coming.

And, I did see a brand new sighting for my list…..Cedar Waxwings!! I think they are only passing through, but don’t know. They are stripping the flowering leaf buds from my Hickory tree and from my Sweet Gums. They have been here for 3 days now. I don’t have any quality pictures of them because I can’t get them close obviously. But, there are about 50+ in the tree when they are feeding. They are pretty cool looking birds, too. They have yellow and red in their bodies along with that distinguishing black mask. I hope I see them every year.

The garden is growing now. I planted more squares of lettuce and carrot yesterday. Everything I do now is directly seeded in the garden. I am done with seed starting and experimenting….too close to my frost date to worry about it. Come April 1st, I will try and put an update pic or two up.

Now, to the zoo. We took the kids with some friends’ kids last week on spring break. They had a blast. We have such a great group of friends to pal around with. And, the best part, the kids really get along. Hopefully, it’s evidenced in the photos.

Of course, what’s a zoo series without animals, though? They are in there, too. This posting is inspired by a forum question from http://squarefoot.creatingforum.com/

I recommend you stop by if you are interested in learning more about the technique/concept. The question being asked right now is about composting. What do the Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Starbucks, and the St. Louis Zoo all have in common? So, I had to post my zoo pics from the STL Zoo!! Enjoy…

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Vermiculite Seed Starting 101..

Long story short: I am becoming convinced you get an advantage by starting seeds inside when the weather is cool. I believe you can skip the high maintanence “hardening off” phase where you take your pots out every day and bring them in every night for awhile…attempting to get them used to being outside. So, I skipped that.

However, there is no doubt you get a faster sprout in warmer soil temps, and in most cases a better germination percentage. So, you control your environment by starting your seeds inside and possibly on a seed heating mat, too. Once they sprout, they go right into the garden. But, how do you do that when the fragile little seedlings are in that dirt? How do you do that without breaking that delicate taproot?

The answer is to start the seeds in a tray of vermiculite. Vermiculite is a mineral, much like mica, that has a tremendous absorption and water retention quality. It’s a bit pricey, but with my method, you will be reusing it over and over again as it has no organic properties whatsoever. Just dry it out and dump it back into your tub. A 3 cu ft bag may last me forever.

I bought a couple of shallow brownie pans from the dollar store. And, I poked several holes in the bottom to allow drainage. Then, I placed a paper towel in the bottom of the pan to keep things from washing through the holes. I added the vermiculite and soaked it with water. I poured off the excess and grabbed my seeds. I sprinkled some seeds on top of the damp vermiculite and covered them with a thin layer of dry vermiculite. The results..

Damp vermiculite with new seedlings sprouting.

You can see the results about 4 days later with my lettuce sprouting. I wait an additional day or two for the sprouts to fully open their first two “baby ears.” Now, they are ready for the garden. I gently use a sharp object, like a pencil, to loosen the soil. I can then just pull the sprouts out by the ears without breaking any roots. After I remove the seedling, I poke a hole in the garden soil and just put the sprout in there like I was planting a seed, but I obviously leave the ears sticking out above the soil.

New seedlings in the garden.

Most of my garden has been started this way this year. Here is the inside of my hoops. I can control the temperature better and capitalize on the even warmer temperatures of my house to get the seeds to sprout faster than they would in the cooler soil of the garden. My theory is that the seedlings know nothing of cold snaps and can handle them just like they would had they started outside originally. However, if I leave them inside under growlights for a couple weeks, I likely have to go through the additional process of hardening them off, too.

Inside the hoops.  In the front squares you can see lettuce started a week before the previous pictures.

I hope this helps paint a better picture.

Sub-freezing Temps Catch the HH Off Guard!!

The scenario: Days upon days of cloudy, rainy weather. This allowed hardly any heating inside the hoops. I think my highest temp inside the HH the past four days was 50F. That ain’t gonna heat the water jugs up much. Yesterday was supposed to be about 45F for a high…..but it never happened. We touched 39 briefly. The clouds were so socked in that there was no sun getting through to provide much heat. The wind was a bit blustery and that likely whisked away anything the soils absorbed. So, when the clouds disappeared at midnight-ish, we sank like a rock. The radiational cooling effect was tremendous. I, personally, wondered why the meteorologists didn’t adjust their numbers based on the fact they missed the daytime high so badly, but they didn’t. No winds to speak of and crystal clear skies mean temps plummet. We were forecast to hit 29 or 30, but went all the way down to 26F. And, my HH suffered.

I woke up this morning to sunshine and got outside as quickly as I could to get the 2nd layer off and let some sun hit the plants. Good news…..no frost inside the hoops. But, the trade off was my temps finally went below freezing. Down to 30 underneath the 2nd layer of covers. I don’t think that did any damamge, and it wasn’t at 30 for long I’m sure. But, nonetheless, I went under 32 for the first time since putting plants in there a couple weeks ago.

This colder than usual end to winter is trying to get me it seems. But, I still think the chances of me taking a hard freeze inside the hoops is minimal. And, I have cold season plants in there anyway. No tomatoes or peppers yet. Those won’t go in until after our actual frost date of April 15th…..and even then, I have a 50/50 shot at taking frost.

Playing the gardening game is always a gamble. You win some, you lose some. But, that’s half the fun. And, with starting my own plants from seeds instead of buying transplants, I lose pennies when I gamble….not dollars. That makes things much easier to swallow. All I lose is time spent….and that’s no biggie when this is something I would be doing anyway. 😉

As for the birds, I will post the week’s best photos. In here you will see the usual suspects. But, you will see a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a brown bird I have yet to identify with confidence. I am torn between an immature Common Grackle, a Rusty Blackbird, and a Brewer’s Blackbird. It sure looks like a grackle to me, but I have never seen a brown one like this. And, the head with partial black feathers looks more like a Rusty to me. If it’s a grackle, I should see him/her year round, unless it’s fading back north along with some other migrants. But, if it’s a Rusty, I won’t see it again until next winter….if I even do then.

Anyway, enjoy the photos, and remember…….Keep Chuggin’!

Detailed Hoops Experiment with Twisted Ending..

I have been trying to organize my thoughts the past few days, and trying to learn WordPress well enough to get my pictures in an individualized order to coincide with telling the story. I, however, have figured “screw it” I don’t operate that way. I am no professional writer, and never intend to become one. Even when I used to to a little public speaking, I mostly flew by the seat of my pants. To me, preparation helps, but can hinder. Sometimes it’s just best to jump in with both feet.

The hoops are holding great!! They give me a consistent 5-8 degrees over the outside air temps. That gets me down to 25 degrees at night before I really need to worry about my tender plants freezing to death. As long as I get ample sun during the day, my milk jugs heat up enough to retain heat at night. Here is how I’ve come to this conclusion/knowledge/experience this season….

First, build your hoop house. There are many ways to do this. Google them and do what you feel most comfortable with. Your main goal is to have a decent looking cover for your plants that will effectively keep the frosts off. However, it’s natural to see if you can’t push that envelope a little bit to see if you can’t get your plants in a little earlier in the spring than Mother Nature typically allows. And, to see if you can’t extend your fall season as long as possible beyond that first frost/freeze. Here is a shot of mine…

Katelyn taking an interest in gardening...shown here outside the hoophouse.

To extend your season, you will need to add a few things to help you retain the heat inside your hoops overnight. First night experience immediately taught me that a single layer of plastic does nothing once the sun goes down. Placing a little thermometer inside the hoops allowed me to monitor things and learn about the new climate I had created. The hoops heat up quickly with some sunshine, and can quickly get up to 50F degrees over the outside air temps. However, once the sun loses a little intensity in the evening, the air temps and hoop temps quickly match up again. That plastic does nothing. So, you need a little help. I added a couple of things after doing a lot of reading on the net.

1) Milk jugs filled with water.

Water is an amazing insulator over a shorter time period. It heats up slower than air, but cools off slower, too. This can be harnessed to your advantage. I use about 20 single gallon milk jugs. I filled them with water and placed them around the edges of my garden UNDER the hoophouse. However, this wasn’t enough to handle temps much below freezing. In fact, I noticed no temperature help. My conclusion was because the volume of air inside the hoops was still too big for only 20 gallons of water to affect.

2) Paint the jugs black.

This was my second step. I read that painting them black would absorb more sunshine and heat them up faster and hotter than leaving them clear or white. Well, that made a lot of common sense to me, so I didn’t question it….I just did it. However, that still wasn’t enough to overcome the volume of air inside the hoops.

3) Add another layer of plastic.

For me, I read a couple of things. First, the layers can’t touch because they will just act as a single layer and provide no help over what the first layer does alone. Second, create a little space between the layers. I thought of bubble wrap, but heard that was a disaster to maintain….and didn’t do too much. I thought of installing another “level” inside the hoops, but thought that would just be a pain to put up and take down. Then, I read…again…about floating row covers. These are simply tarps, or cloth, draped loosely over the plants. I figured I had the milk jugs inside that could sort of act as a frame to keep the second layer of plastic about 12 inches off the ground. That should trap that heat from the jugs closer to the ground and make any warmth work harder to get out of the house entirely. After one night of doing that, it clearly helped. I stayed 8 degrees over the air temps! Quite the victory. Here is my current setup inside the hoops…

If you look deeper into the house, you will see the plastic bottles underneath the “floating row.” The black milk jugs are farther back into the plastic and you don’t see those. But, you get the point of how this works. I have since maintained a consistent 6-8F degrees over the nighttime low temps every time I’ve used the second row.

So, I figured I was covered down to 25F at night. Now, my frost date for planting had changed quite a bit. I move from April 15th back to March 30th. A lot of cooler season veggies can withstand some frost and be put in the garden up to 4-5 weeks before the last frost date in your area. I ran out and planted some peas, carrots, and spinach in a couple of squares just to see how long they would take to germinate. (Plants germinate faster at 60F than 40F.) I figured I had a few weeks before I would see anything, but wanted to try. I also have seeds started indoors that are ready to go outside now. So, I started “hardening off” the seedlings by placing them under the plastic during the day and bringing them back in at night.

HH

You can see the squares I planted, my thermometer, and the seedlings being hardened off. But, if you look closely, you can see I left the hoops open on the ends. Normally, that isn’t a problem. You don’t want things getting too hot in the HH when you have plants inside….they could cook. So, when daytime temps get up into the 40’s, you start opening your hoops a little to allow some heat out. That was the plan. But, I didn’t prepare for….

devastation

Yes, I forgot about critters. Man, are they quick, too! I assume this was the work of a squirrel since I have never seen a rabbit in my yard since moving here in September. But, I also have a dog that loves to investigate things, and she was outside quite a bit that day, too. Either way, I didn’t prepare for critters. Not only did the animal turn over my seedlings, it also dug up some of my seeds in the squares. So, my little seed starting experiment is on hold until I can restart it.

But, as I’ve said throughout this blog…..learn from my experiences. I will make every mistake possible…I promise. You just have to take notes, and hopefully, a little humor from some of the things I mess up. As of right now, I only open the tops of the ends of my hoops. I have two spring clips on each end where I fold over the flaps and clip them closed. I, now, open the top clip. When both ends are open, I get pretty good ventilation, and the temps normalize inside the HH. Best yet, the critters don’t try to get inside because the ends are closed still at the bottom.

And, you know the motto when something sets you back…….Keep Chuggin’!

Lots of Activity Today, too..

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Quick count for you since the morning was so crazy active…

725am-740am…32F…cloudy with a dusting of snow overnight….no new sightings.

10 American Goldfinches…these numbers are really shooting up; I haven’t seen this many at one time since we’ve moved in back in September; I can’t really explain it yet, but I love it; Hopefully, a sign to come this year.

1 Titmouse…where there is almost always 2

16 Eurasian Tree Sparrows…all over the ground since I put the cheap mix down yesterday; I expect Grackles and Cowbirds to clean up the mess soon.

5 Cardinals…yesterday I saw 5 males; today I saw 3 females; I just don’t seem to see them at the same time often, and when I do, there is obvious fighting amongst the males….unless the weather is bad, then they all get along nicely.

10 Dark-eyed Juncos….they come in with the finches, usually, but today came with the sparrows.

7 House Finches…these guys have been a bit timid lately; They tend to stay up in the treetops while all the chaos is going on; They come down once the heat dies down.

2 Black-capped Chickadees

8 Mourning Doves….sitting in the trees and dabbling on the ground.

8 European Starlings…came in and took over the feeders until they realized they can’t eat at them very well and quickly left.

2 Downy Woodpeckers…male and female.

1 Red-bellied Woodpecker….a regular

2 Purple Finches….the female is regular; the male is rather rare, but comes in with the house finches.

1 Robin….still hoping for worms

2 Song Sparrows….I am so happy to see these guys coming around more frequently. I just love the native sparrows. It gives me hope that the House Sparrows haven’t overtaken everything….yet.

1 Blue Jay….yesterday 3 of them hung in the trees; Today, one came into a feeder and chattered at me a bit; Typically, only the one comes to the feeders, but we have a lot of them in the area here.

And, for the HH, I didn’t use the 2nd layer of plastic last night because it was raining and I didn’t have anything to protect in there since I’m only running the experiment on holding temps. I didn’t get out early enough this morning to take a reading. However, the air temp got down to 32F, so I assume I got to 33 inside…..but when I checked, the max/min had just reset for the day and it was reading 42F with an air temp of 33F at about 10 am.

Keep Chuggin’!

Birds, Pictures, and Hoops..

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We are expecting some rain over the next few days. Temps are rather chilly after a nice 10 days of springlike days. The bird activity has been low. So, you know what that means? Yup, today was a good day at the feeders. Let’s do an official count…and watch the variety you can bring in if you diversify your feed and offer the basics (food, water, shelter, nesting sites).

830am…37F…overcast with showers in the area….no new sightings (but, a couple rare ones)

4 doves, 3 blue jays hopping in the trees rading squirrel nests of their nuts, 4 juncos, 3 downy woodpeckers, 6 goldfinches…two days in a row their numbers are way up, 1 red-belly, 3 cardinals…still chasing each other, 3 ETS, 1 house sparrow…they are rather rare at my house, 1 chickadee, 1 cooper’s hawk…flew over twice with a piece of food once and nesting material the second time, 1 robin, 1 flicker…these are rare for me, too, 3 starlings…nesting in a tree in my neighbor’s yard, 1 canadian goose….i hear them going crazy with the honking in the quarry behind my house and there are likely many more than 1, 4 house finches, and 1 brown creeper….i was dying to grab a shot of him but he flew away really quickly; they are pretty rare in my yard.

So, there is a nice diversity of 17 different species, of which I have some pictures to post today!

As for the hoophouse, I think I have things figured out. If I only use the single layer of plastic, I get about 1 degree of protection. If I use the second layer draped like a floating row cover over the milk jugs, I get about 6-8 degrees of protection. The next experiment I plan to run is in a separate bed with no hoops. I want to see if the floating row cover is all I need to be using. Granted, the hoops will help in the summer with taller plants and bird netting. But, we will deal with that when the time comes. My readings from overnight are 37/39.

I also planted some seeds yesterday. With hoop protection, I could have planted carrots, spinach, and peas directly in the garden a couple of weeks ago. With the cooloer temps, germination will take longer. But, who cares? I planted in my garden!

I plan to run another test, though. I want to sow some seeds inside and once they sprout, immediately move the seedlings outside to the garden. I am of the understanding this won’t kill them. So, I plan to try this today. Maybe tomorrow, you get pics of the process?

Keep Chuggin’!

Wild Backyard Bird Count (2/19/11) and HH Update..

Big blog entry today!! 😉

Lots to talk about. First, the Great Backyard Bird Count is underway for a few days. You can find links, if you care to participate, by visiting either eBird.org or AllAboutBirds.org. This is a great way to contribute to those studying bird habits, habitats, breeding, and migrations among many other things bird related. Second, my hoop house went through it’s first night with the milk jugs in it, and I will report about that, too. So, kind of a double whammy of blog entries.

Ok, the birds. I haven’t done an official count in quite some time because I’ve been busy with other things, and nothing has really changed near the feeders. No new sightings, nothing really exciting to report. However, I have been looking forward to participating in the GBBC (Great Backyard Bird Count) for over a year because I missed last year’s count. The count runs this weekend for four days. Just go count birds for at least 15 minutes and submit a checklist. If you have a feeder in your yard, great. If you hike a trail, great. If you just sit on your deck, great. They really don’t care….they just want data for specific locations. The people in charge are trying to leverage volunteers to help them get an accurate idea of the bird population across the country and world. On either site I linked above, there are some cool things to play with to help you either identify birds or see where they live at different times of year. Set aside half an hour and poke around. You should be impressed. It is the main reason my kids are getting into birds with me. They play with the sounds and try to look up what they’ve just seen in the yard. It’s turned into very productive computer time. And, you know what that’s like today if you’re a parent of a younger kid. On to the count…

2/19/2011…8am…42F…cloudy…no new sightings

3 American Goldfinch, 6 House Finch, 1 White-breasted Nuthatch, 3 Dark-eyed Junco, 1 Downy Woodpecker, 5 Mourning Dove, 31 Canadian Geese (anything I see goes into the GBBC and these flew overhead as I have a quarry about a quarter mile from my house), 3 Common Grackle, 4 European Starling, 1 Cooper’s Hawk (carrying either a mouse or bird in it’s mouth flying overhead), 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker, 2 Northern Cardinal (both male and starting to get territorial again this week), 2 Black-capped Chickadee, 4 Eurasian Tree Sparrow, 1 Blue Jay, 1 Purple Finch (female).

Good turn out this morning. Katelyn will do the afternoon count today for the website. But, I bet I win…lol. The numbers are simply better in the mornings. And, she’s a sleeper these days. For example, here is yesterday afternoon’s count, too…..1 Downy, 1 Purple Finch, 2 Chickadees, 2 Doves, 1 Grackle, 4 Mallards flew over. That was it. 15 minutes and that was it. What a difference the mornings make!

As for the hoop house, I have really be struggling with frustration lately. I have no experience to base this on, but I thought it would hold heat better than it does. I had seen videos of people using them in the winter and such, and thought I could just pop one in and be virtually ready for planting because it would protect me from frosts. I felt that if it got to 85-100 degrees inside, surely it wouldn’t cool off to below freezing overnight. Well, the first two days I watched it immediately return to the air temperature once the sun went down. I starting wondering what the heck is the point of even doing this if I get it super hot and it just cools back down in a matter of minutes?

But, I did more research to rememdy the issue. I don’t have promising news, but I will go over the structure’s setup.

I used 10 foot PVC sections from a hardware store. I have placed them every two feet along my garden. I just placed one end in the ground against one side of my garden and doubled the pipe over so it formed an arch and stuck it in the ground opposite itself. I bracketed the pipe in place with metal bands I bought at the same store. I formed a ridge/spine by taking another of the 10 foot sections of PVC and lashed it into place with twine. It doesn’t have to be super tight…just enough to keep the spine from sliding. I, then, draped plastic sheeting/dropcloth over the hoops and it looks like a covered wagon. (Pics are on my Flickr to the side here and I believe have been posted in a recent blog update, too.) The plastic was 3.5mm thick, but it really didn’t hold heat. I read most people used 6mm plastic. I went out the next day and bought some. I did notice it held up in breezy conditions much better, but didn’t retain heat any better.

The next step was to add gallon milk jugs filled with water. The concept is the water jugs will absorb heat during the day and slowly give it off at night…keeping temps up under the plastic. Last night was the first test run. I was discouraged at sundown when the air temp and hoophouse temp were the same. However, this morning, I just went outside and the air was 42, but the hoophouse was 46. That ain’t bad! I may finally be getting somewhere. I spray painted the milk jugs black to help absorb more heat, too. Once I get a full day of sunshine, we should see what I have accomplished…if anything.

One other thing, I have been keeping the hoophouse covered during the day, no matter the temps, for testing purposes. If the air temps get above 50 degress with sunshine, I will likely have to open the house for the day. It can get really hot inside and my lettuce, spinach, and broccoli can’t handle that kind of heat. But, the trick is to spring-clamp the ends. All I will do is unclamp the ends and let the breeze blow right through. On hotter days, I will roll the sides up, too. After all danger of frost passes, around late April, I will take the plastic off for good and store it for autumn.

The result in keeping things covered throughout the day is my soil is heating up quickly. I was just breaking ice chunks in the dirt on Monday, and I measured 46 degrees at a depth of 6 inches yesterday afternoon. If I were more confident in the heat holding properties, I could feasibly put plants outside right now. How’s that for an early start to the gardening season?

Keep Chuggin’

Hoop House Up and Running..

My time has been spent, lately, building my square foot garden. I put a deadline to myself of having things ready and waiting for transplants by February 25th, and I got it done early…thanks to some warm weather. Daytime temps have been running in the 50s and 60s the past week or so, and that melted off our snow and ice from New Years. Yes, we’ve had snow cover since New Year’s Day-ish. That’s a crazy long time for the St. Louis area.

I have a meat thermometer in the hoop house as we speak. I am going to monitor the temperature in there for a day or so to see how the temps behave with the plastic cover over the soil. I am hoping to get some nice temperatures inside there to both warm the soil and give me confidence that the garden can handle some subfreezing night temps based on ambient air temps inside.

I have about 12 lettuce plants going inside, one cauliflower, two broccoli, and a celery plant growing. I need to learn more about starting seeds inside because mine are very “leggy” and seem fragile. However, there is time for that. I purchased a seed warming mat to keep the temps up above 70F. My basement runs 59-61F and that won’t sprout tomatoes and peppers….which get started soon.

Right now, it’s 63F outside my house. However, when I check inside the hoop house, it’s … 82F!! And, I’ve only had the plastic on for about a half hour or so. I will check again around 1pm and update the bottom of the blog.

The hoop house “should” get me a few weeks either side of our frost date in STL. As of now, our last average frost is around Tax Day…April 15th. And, our first frost of the fall is around October 20th. Our growing season is typically 188 days relatively frost free. I, however, am trying to push for earlier in the spring and later in the fall. I would like to still be harvesting lettuce, spinach, and some other salad greens past Thanksgiving. So, I need an artificial environment changer. We’ll see how the hoops work out.

I had read that covers can give you a full zone to a zone and a half’s worth of season extension. I live in 6a. A cover would get me to 7a or 7b. By my estimations, my frost dates would move back to March 25th and November 5th, respectively. With cooler season vegetables like lettuce, spinach, and broccoli, I can likely hit my goals consistently because these veggies can withstand some frosting.

I will keep you updated as the garden grows. But, for now…..we’re ready for that first planting.

I just ran back outside to check the temp in side the hoops. I noticed some fluctuation earlier directly proportional to the intensity of the sunshine. Granted, it’s 69F today….but the hoop house was 97F! I was shocked to see such a difference, but if you are like me, you look for other things to confirm. I saw ants inside the house zipping this way and that. The ones on the outside I saw earlier were moving rather slow. That’s confirmation for me.