Periodic Trends: The secrets of spring

Graphic by Kathryn Messinger

Graphic by Kathryn Messinger


It’s not a secret that we have Earth’s 23.5-degree tilt on its axis to thank for the seasons and that, in the northern hemisphere, summer is when the Earth is tilted toward the sun and winter is when it is tilted away. With spring here, our hemisphere is beginning to increase its tilt toward the sun. Being tilted toward the sun, by just that much, changes our weather drastically. Here are some things you might not have known about spring — the season we’ve all been waiting for these many cold, snow-filled months.

The smell of rain — The scent of rain on dry earth is also called petrichor. The chemical geosmin is responsible for the distinct earthy aroma during rainfall. It is produced by a type of bacteria called actinomycetes that live in the soil. The bacteria produce the compound during a dry spell and the rain disturbs the soil and allows geosmin to escape into the air. The moist air easily carries the organic compound to our noses when we breathe it in. The bacteria are fairly ubiquitous, which accounts for the universal smell. The human nose is pretty sensitive to the compound and you may even notice it when Rowan’s sprinklers are blasting.

The life span of insects — Most of us might believe that bugs like ticks and bees die in the winter and their eggs hatch in the spring or larvae survive the cold. Sorry to break it to you, but that’s not always the case. Bugs don’t always die off in winter, some just lie dormant until the warm weather kicks up and starts their metabolisms again. Bugs find protected places like tree cavities to hibernate in. Ladybugs, ticks, some bees, beetles, spiders and mosquitoes can survive winter this way, which is unfortunate if you’re like me and can’t stand insects and used to be comforted by the idea that all bugs died in the winter.

The truth about plants  Yes, it is true, that being allergic to pollen is analogous to being allergic to plant sperm. Pollen contains the gametes from the male part of the plant, the stamen, and protects the sperm cells when they are being transferred to the female part of the plant, the pistil or the scale of a cone, depending on if the plant is a flowering plant (angiosperm) or coniferous plant (gymnosperm). Furthermore, when the female gamete, the egg, is fertilized, and the ovary of the female plant grows to protect and nourish the developing seed, it produces fruit. To put it bluntly, biting into your apple as a snack at lunch time is in fact eating a plant’s ovary, and you will probably never look at fruit the same again.

Spring is a beautiful time filled with bright flowers, pollinating bees, singing birds and the familiar scent of rain. Though these springtime characteristics make the season fun and enjoyable, they’re not just for show. With plenty of biology going on before your eyes, it’s nature at work.

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