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Rudi Kiefer: Fall has arrived, with some strange effects
Rudi Kiefer

I realized I was watching an eviction. Security personnel were pulling and pushing a chubby male subject out of the entrance.  They tried to toss him off the steep ledge in the front. He resisted stubbornly. As more help appeared, he gave up and flew away.

The honeybees I was observing were in the process of cleaning out their hive, in anticipation of the approaching equinox. Drones, used but no longer needed, were getting tossed out. So did worker bees who couldn’t perform their duties. Below the ledge, the ground was crawling with rejects.

Insects, as well as trees, have a built-in calendar that keeps them aware of the seasons. Fall equinox occurs tomorrow, and the days will be shorter than the nights from now until March 19, 2020. For many plants and animals, it signals the need to prepare for winter. 

Years ago, I was monitoring acid production from tree roots in the Georgia mountains for a geology project. Common wisdom claimed that it depends upon temperatures and available water. To my surprise, the spring and fall equinoxes were a controlling element. 

On our yearly journey around the sun, Earth’s axis points to the same spot in the sky the entire time. So there are times when the North Pole appears tilted toward the sun (that’s summer) and other times when it’s in the shadow, or leaning away from the sun (winter). The crossover occurs in September and March. Right now, Earth’s axis is tilted sideways with regard to its orbit. So the northern and southern hemisphere are receiving the same amount of sunlight, as the planet spins. Daylight hours have been diminishing since June, but we still have 12 hours of day and 12 of night at the moment. After tomorrow, we’ll be heading for the darkest day and the longest night occurring on December 21. 

The effect of equinoxes on the human body aren’t clear.  It’s been shown that people living in the far north of America and Eurasia benefit from winter therapy using bright lights. This is especially true beyond the Arctic Circle, where nighttime darkness can last days or even weeks. But equinoxes seem to have mostly a mythical and spiritual meaning for many.  In Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, though, an old saying goes: “You’ll know summer is ending when people start preparing for winter.”


Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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