Never mind that they look like virulent viruses or a fetish from someone’s kinky imagination; these little nuggets are the grains of life. We’re used to seeing bees’ knees thickly coated in them, or being told on summer weather reports that their count is going through the roof, but it’s a rare thing indeed to see pollen under the microscope, up close and personal and in all its juicy detail.
It might look all fluffy to the naked eye, but pollen is a coarse if not quite vulgar substance – powder but not powder puff stuff that produces the male gamete – that’s sperm cells to you and me – of seed plants.
A hard coat covering the pollen grain like a Hell’s Angel’s studded leather jacket protects the sperm cells as they are travelling from the man part, or stamen, of one flower to the lady part, or pistil, of the next.
Drying out and solar radiation are just two of the pains in the butt the sperm nucleus is protected from by the waxes and proteins covering the pollen grain surface. The outer pollen wall also stops the pollen grain from shrinking and crushing the vital genetic bits inside – kind of like an athlete’s cup.
It’s true that pollen grains are tough little cookies, and it’s also true that some of them really are tiny.
The smallest pollen grains, those of the forget-me-not flower, are only about 6 µm (0.006 mm) in diameter. That’s a waist line anyone would be proud of in fat club.
Pollen grains also contain apertures in their walls like thinning, furrows and pores. Maybe pollen is sexy. Not sex toy sexy – though this examination seems to be revealing otherwise – but sexy in the way imperfections make us sexy. Gnarled sexy in the way chicks somehow dig Tommy Lee Jones.
But anyway, we digress. These apertures serve as an exit point for the pollen contents to go busting out of like a bunch of squaddies on leave for the first time in months.
The apertures in the pollen grains also allow the shrinking and swelling of the grain caused by changes in moisture content.
Of course, one of the things pollen is best known for is getting up your nose. It’s a major cause of the hay fever allergy – and looking at the spikes on these grains you’d have to say it’s no wonder.
Generally, though, hay fever is caused by the pollen of anemophilous (meaning “wind-loving”) plants, which is dispersed by air currents. These plants produce large quantities of lightweight, ninja-style pollen, which can be carried great distances and easily inhaled so that they irritate our sensitive wee nasal passages.
Thus, the pollen we are more familiar with – the heavy, sticky stuff of entomophilous (meaning “insect-loving”) plants, dispersed by bees and flies – in actual fact does not become airborne of its own accord, and so is unlikely to set you on a sneezing fit.
So there you have it. We’re getting a bit woozy with all these pollen grains in front of our faces, so it’s time to blow our noses and wrap things up.