Palynology: Definition, Branches & Applications

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Palynology studies pollen and spores produced by plants. It has many interesting applications, from crime scene analysis to understanding the diets of ancient people. In this lesson, learn about all the amazing things that palynology can tell us!

What is Palynology?

In the springtime, you may have noticed a lot of tiny, yellow particles floating in the air. They collect on sidewalks, cars, and even people if you sit outside for a while! These tiny particles are fine grains of pollen, and they are produced by many types of plants. Pollen carries genetic material from one plant to another, allowing plants to reproduce. In addition, some plants release different tiny particles called spores in order to reproduce.

Palynology is the branch of biology that studies tiny particles like pollen and spores. Studying the pollen and spores produced by plants tells us a lot about the plants themselves, but that's not all that palynology can do! Pollen and spores also give us clues that we use to understand what life was like in the past, help people who suffer from allergies, track the migration of insects, and even solve crimes!

Palynology studies pollen, like that produced by this flower, and other microscopic plant spores.
pollen on a flower

Palynology and Allergies

Many people have allergic reactions to various types of pollen. Some palynologists study the structure of pollen grains to understand why they elicit allergic reactions in people. Palynologists also study the distribution of different types of pollen during various times of the year. This can help allergy sufferers know when and where they are most likely to get sick, so they can potentially avoid being outside during those times and reduce their symptoms.

Entomopalynology

One branch of palynology, entomopalynology, studies the pollen that collects on insects. Many types of insects eat plants, and in the process, they often pick up grains of pollen on their bodies and ingest it along with the plants. This pollen can be collected and analyzed to learn more about the feeding patterns of various types of insects. Because plants growing in different areas produce different types of pollen, palynology is also be used to determine the migration patterns of insects. This information helps farmers keep track of insects that might damage their crops.

Because insects, like this bee, often ingest and pick up pollen on their bodies, entomopalynology tells us a lot about their lives.
A Bee covered with pollen

Melissopalynology

Bees collect nectar from flowering plants and carry it back to their hive where they use it to make honey. Even though they don't actually use pollen to make honey, some grains of pollen usually make their way into the honey since the bees can't help picking some up along with the nectar. Melissopalynology is the branch of palynology that studies the types of pollen found in honey.

The goal of melissopalynology is to identify the types of plants that were used by the bees to produce a certain type of honey. This information is really important to people who produce and sell honey, because some honey sells for more money than other types of honey; it depends on the plant it's made from. Other plants contain compounds that may be harmful for people to eat, so honey producers need to identify these plants before they sell it and people get sick!

Paleopalynology

Because each grain of pollen has a hard outer shell, it can become fossilized and stick around for thousands and even millions of years. Paleopalynology uses pollen to study the distant past.

Geologists, along with oil and gas companies, analyze fossilized pollen that has been incorporated into rocks. They use it to make predictions about the types of plants that lived in that area. It also helps identify areas where there are likely to be underground reserves of oil.

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