How Pollen Works

Pollen and People
Bees, along with other creatures, are important and highly adapted pollinators.
Bees, along with other creatures, are important and highly adapted pollinators.

Plants, pollen and pollinators are obviously of great importance to humans. People surely passed on knowledge of plants throughout our species' long evolution, but some 11,000 years ago, we drastically changed the game [source: Starr]. That's around the time people began domesticating crop plants -- selecting favorite specimens from wild breeds and cultivating them for certain desirable attributes like high yield, pest resistance or heat tolerance. Fast forward to today, and our crop production methods have again leapt forward dramatically from those early beginnings. Now many crops are genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and our artificial tampering has left lots of people wondering what impact it will have on naturally evolved organisms.

Scientists study whether and under what circumstances GMO crops have the potential to interbreed with conventional crops, as well as related species. One study conducted in Africa, an area where GMOs could have a considerable impact, determined bees there venture close to 4 miles (3 kilometers) away from the nest while foraging [source: Science Daily]. Such range could allow the trangenes of introduced GMO crops to infiltrate wild species. In order to control instances of crosspollination, international bodies such as the European Coexistence Bureau advocate certain isolation measures. These include spatial and temporal steps; in other words, planting crops at certain distances from plants that might be cross-pollinated, as well as timing such plantings so the species flower at different times of the year.

Pollen is also useful stuff to study for other reasons. By taking core samples, scientists who specialize in fields of palynology -- the study of pollens, spores and similar microscopic plant life -- can get a good idea as to what plants were prevalent during different eras of the Earth's history. For example, pollen and other palynomorphs can help determine when agricultural cultivation starts or stops in a certain area, when a stretch of land was wooded or meadowed, or when changes in climate occurred.

On the next page, learn lots more about pollen -- and what to do when it starts you sneezing.