Amazing Pollen: Nothing To Sneeze At

March 5, 2015

Over a period of 140 million years, flowering plants and pollinators have co-evolved to create a process of pollination that ultimately sustains all life on the planet. While pollination may appear to be just a simple transfer of pollen grains from one flower to another, it is in reality an interlocking puzzle of specificity and adhesion.

Honey bees are the most important pollinators because they are the only insects that actively interact with the pollen, consistently forage in the same area around the hive, and only visit a single type of flower on a foraging trip. These behaviors help to ensure that pollen is efficiently and accurately transferred to the appropriate flower species. For pollinators that are generalists—like honey bees—they can visit up to 1,000 flowers per day. Their hairy bodies are perfectly constructed to trap pollen grains.

The mechanism by which these pollen grains detach themselves from the bee and interact with a flower’s stigma with exquisite specificity has inspired the fabrication of a novel class of bio-inspired adhesive materials. Researchers have created magnetic replicas of sunflower pollen grains, which have a spiky outer surface. This “artificial pollen” has the natural sticky properties of the sunflower pollen and is augmented by the power of magnetism. It can then be modified to adhere to specific surfaces—creating high performance coatings for the aircraft and automotive industries.

Pollination is also vital to ensuring a nutritious and diverse food supply for people. Nearly all fruit and grain crops require pollination in order to produce a harvestable crop. With the exception of canola, corn and wind, which are self-pollinated—150 other foodstuffs in the United States require help from pollinators. These crops include apples, alfalfa, almonds, blueberries, cranberries, kiwis, melons, pears, plums, and squashes. Beyond providing human sustenance, pollination by honey bees is critically important to maintaining a robust and balanced ecosystem. So when spring arrives this month, it may be of some small comfort to realize what else pollen can do besides cause allergies!