A Few Fun Facts About Pollen

Sexual reproduction in vascular plants requires producing and transporting pollen grains – the male gametophytes or sperm cells of a plant. These reproductive cells must make their way to the egg cells in or order to form seeds – plants in embryo. The movement of pollen is something we can all observe. It’s happening all around us on a regular basis. Any time a seed-bearing plant (also known as a spermatophyte) develops mature cones or flowers, pollen is on the move. Pollen is a ubiquitous and enduring substance and a fascinating subject of study. In case you don’t believe me, here are a few fun facts.

Bee covered in pollen – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Pollen is as diverse as the species that produce it. Pollen grains are measured in micrometers and are so tiny that the only reason we can see them with the naked eye is because they are often found en masse. Yet they are incredibly diverse in size, shape, and texture, and each plant species produces its own unique looking pollen. With the help of a good microscope, plants can even be identified simply by looking at their pollen. See images of the pollen grains of dozens of plant species here and here.

Pollen helps us answer questions about the past. Because pollen grains are so characteristic and because their outer coating (known as exine) is so durable and long-lasting, studying pollen found in sediments and sedimentary rocks helps us discover all sorts of things about deep time. The study of pollen and other particulates is called palynology. Numerous disciplines look to palynology to help them answer questions and solve mysteries. Its even used in forensics to help solve crimes. Criminals should be aware that brushing up against a plant in bloom may provide damning evidence.

Pollen oddities. While all pollen is different, some plants produce particularly unique pollen. The pollen grains of plants in the orchid and milkweed families, for example, are formed into united masses called pollinia. Each pollinium is picked up by pollinators and transferred to the stigmas of flowers as a single unit. A number of other species produce other types of compound pollen grains. The pollen grains of pines and other conifers are winged, and the pollen grains of seagrass species, like Zostera spp., are filamentous and said to hold the record for longest pollen grains.

The pollinia of milkweed (Asclepias spp.) look like the helicopter-esque fruits of maple trees. photo credit: wikimedia commons

Pollen tube oddities. In flowering plants, when pollen grains reach the stigma of a compatible flower, a vegetative cell within the grain forms a tube in order to transport the regenerative cells into the ovule. This tube varies in length depending on the length of the flower’s style. Because corn flowers produce such long styles (also know as corn silk), corn pollen grains hold the record for longest pollen tube, which can measure 12 inches or more. Species found in the mallow, gourd, and bellflower families produce multiple pollen tubes per pollen grain. Hence, their pollen is said to be polysiphonous.

Pollen is transported in myriad ways. Plants have diverse ways of getting their pollen grains where they need to be. Anemophilous plants rely on wind and gravity. They produce large quantities of light-weight pollen grains that are easily dislodged. Most of this pollen won’t make it, but enough of it will to make this strategy worth it. Hydrophilous plants use water and, like wind pollinated plants, may produce lots of pollen due to the unpredictably of this method. Some hydrophilous plants transport their pollen on the surface of the water, while others are completely submerged during pollination.

Employing animals to move pollen is a familiar strategy. Entomophily (insect pollination) is the most common, but there is also ornithophily (bird pollination) and chiropterophily (bat pollination), among others. Plants that rely on animals for pollination generally produce pollen grains that are sticky and nutritious. They attract animals using showy flowers, fragrance, and nectar. The bodies of pollinating insects have modifications that allow them to collect and transport pollen. Certain bees, like honey bees and bumblebees, have pollen baskets on their hind legs, while other bees have modified hairs called scopae on certain parts of their bodies.

Pollen is edible. Some animals – both pollinating and non-pollinating – use pollen as a food source. Animals that eat pollen are palynivores. Bees, of course, eat pollen, but lots of other insects do, too. Even some spiders, which are generally thought of as carnivores, have been observed eating pollen that gets trapped in their webs.

Pollen is thought to be highly nutritious for humans as well, and so, along with being taken as a supplement, it is used in all sorts of food products. To collect pollen, beekeepers install pollen traps on their beehives that strip incoming worker bees of their booty. Pollen from various wind pollinated plants, like cattails and pine trees, are also collected for human consumption. For example, a Korean dessert called dasik is made using pine pollen.

pine pollen – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Pollen makes many people sick. Hay fever is a pretty common condition and is caused by an allergy to wind-borne pollen. This condition is also known as pollinosis or allergic rhinitis. Not all flowering plants are to blame though, so here is a list of some of the main culprits. Because so many people suffer from hay fever, pollen counts are often included in weather reports. Learn more about what those counts mean here.

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Year of Pollination: Mosquitoes as Pollinators

It is difficult to have positive feelings about mosquitoes, especially during summer months when they are out in droves and our exposed skin – soft, supple, and largely hair-free – is irresistible to them. We are viewed as walking blood meals by female mosquitoes who are simply trying to produce young – to perpetuate their species just like any other species endeavors to do. Unfortunately, we are left with small, annoying bumps in our skin – red, itchy, and painful – risking the possibility that the mosquitoes that just drew our blood may have passed along any number of mosquito-borne diseases, some (such as malaria) that potentially kill millions of people every year. For this, it is okay to hate mosquitoes and to long for the day of their complete eradication from the planet. However, their ecological roles (and yes, they do have some) are also worth considering.

There are more than 3,500 species of mosquito. Luckily, only 200 or so consume human blood. Mosquitoes go back at least 100 million years and have co-evolved with species of plants and animals found in diverse habitats around the world. Adult mosquitoes and their larvae (which live in standing water) provide food for a wide variety of creatures including birds, bats, insects, spiders, fish, frogs, lizards, and salamanders. Mosquito larvae also help break down organic matter in the bodies of water they inhabit. They even play an important role in the food webs found inside the pitchers of northern pitcher plants (Sarracenia spp.). Interestingly enough, Arctic mosquitoes influence the migration patterns of caribou. They emerge in swarms so big and so voracious that they have been said to kill caribou through either blood loss or asphyxiation.

However, blood is not the main food source of mosquitoes; flower nectar is. Males don’t consume blood at all, and females only consume it when they are producing eggs. Any insect that visits flowers for nectar has the potential to unwittingly collect pollen and transfer it to a nearby flower, thereby aiding in pollination. Mosquitoes are no exception. They have been observed acting as pollinators for a handful of species, and could be acting as pollinators for many more.

Bluntleaved orchid (Platanthera obtusata) is pollinated by mosquitoes. phot credit: wikimedia commons

Bluntleaved orchid (Platanthera obtusata) is pollinated by mosquitoes. photo credit: wikimedia commons

The scientific literature describes the pollination by mosquitoes of at least two plant species: Platanthera obtusata (syn. Habenaria obtusata) and Silene otites. P. obtusata – bluntleaved orchid – is found in cold, wet regions in North America and northern Eurasia. It is pollinated by mosquitoes from multiple genera including several species in the genus Aedes. Mosquitoes visit the flowers to feed on the nectar and, subsequently, pollinia (clusters of pollen) become attached to their eyes and are moved from flower to flower. This scenario likely plays out in other species of Arctic orchids as well*.

S. otites – Spanish catchfly – is a European species that is pollinated by mosquitoes and moths. Researches have been studying the floral odors of S. otites that attract mosquitoes, suggesting that determining the compounds involved in these odors “might lead to the development of new means of pest control and mosquito attractants and repellents.”

Northern House Mosquito (Culex pipiens) - one of the species of mosquitoes that has been observed pollinating Silene otitis. photo credit: www.eol.org

Northern House Mosquito (Culex pipiens) – one of the species of mosquitoes that has been observed pollinating Silene otites. photo credit: www.eol.org

Despite the list of functions that mosquitoes serve in their varied habitats, an article that appeared in Nature back in 2010 argues for wiping mosquitoes off the Earth, stating that “the ecological scar left by a missing mosquito would heal quickly as the niche was filled by other organisms.” And even though “thousands of plant species would lose a group of pollinators,” mosquitoes are not important pollinators of the “crops on which humans depend,” nor do they appear to be the sole pollinator of any single plant species [the species mentioned above are pollinated by other insects as well]. Eliminating mosquitoes, however, is more of a pipe dream than a realistic possibility as our “best efforts can’t seriously threaten an insect with few redeeming features.”

*Speaking of orchids and pollination, endless posts could be written about this incredibly fascinating and diverse group of plants and their equally fascinating and complex mechanisms surrounding pollination. There will be more to come on such topics. Meanwhile, it should be noted that orchids are also a notoriously threatened group of plants. To learn more about orchids and orchid conservation in North America, visit North American Orchid Conservation Center.

Read more about mosquito pollination here.

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