Food Really Is Sex
If you think about it, all of our food comes from an absolutely massive amount of sex.
Animal sex gives us bacon and eggs. Plant sex gives us toast, juice, and jam. Or rather, we, as very advanced apes, have become amazingly brilliant at utilizing animal sex to cook a delicious breakfast.
In the spring we’re surrounded by a buzzing cacophony of sex: sperm clouds wafting through the fields, suggestive flowers unfolding in the dewy grass, birds peeping incessant love power ballads from the high branches.
Pollen, in particular, is an extremely important foodstuff for animals, as the last icicles of winter melt away and the beetle and bee become more and more active.
We didn’t know much of anything about the microscopic realm until about 1590 when somebody clever invented the microscope. It took us until the 1800s to begin to understand pollen and evolution.
Pollen are tiny grains located in sacs called anthers at the end of filaments (or from a male cone to the female cone of a coniferous plant). These male parts of a flower are called the stamen. The pollen grains are protected by a hard shell called the exine and a soft inner shell called the intine which protects the cells inside the pollen grain from deyhdration and solar radiation as they move from anther to the female parts of a flower. The intine contains two types of cells, vegetative and generative. The generative splits apart into two sperm cells, while the vegetative cells help transfer those sperm cells through the pistils, the female parts, of the flower which consist of the stigma, style, and ovary. Once caught on the stigma, the vegetative cell creates a pollen tube to transfer the sperm cells down to the ovule. Fertilized ovaries go on to produce fruits, nuts, and seeds.
The transfer of pollen to stigma is accomplished by a couple methods. Anemophilious (wind-loving) plants use the wind to carries their pollen from anther to stigma, such as non-flowering seed producing plant, some grasses, the conifers, and alders. Twenty three million Americans of us have an allergic reaction to the well-know anemophilious plant Ragweed , which causes runny noses, sneezing, and itchy eyes. Entomophilious (insect-loving) plants use insect partners to transfer their sticky, protein rich pollen to the pistils of flowers.
A palynivore (pollen-eater) is a herbivorous animal that selectively eats pollen. Strictly speaking this includes bees and a few kinds of wasps. If you expand the definition to include insects that eat pollen at one stage in their lifecycle you can include beetles, flies, butterflies, and moths. Some other species that opportunistically feed on pollen are birds and orb-weaving spiders.
Bees have evolved an entire culture around pollen and nectar, including morphological changes to their bodies to allow them to transport large quantities of the nutrient rich substance back to their hives. Through color, each flower communicates its pollen and nectar potential to the forager bee. Ultraviolet markings on the flower petals helps the bee navigate the floral landscape efficiently.
The pollen collected by the foragers is mixed with saliva and nectar and fermented in chambers that lay in between the honey and the brood, to become “bee bread”, the main source of food for larvae and workers. The fermentation process breaks down the walls of the pollen grains and helps make the nutrients more bioavailable for digestion.
Wild bee species collect most of their pollen from native plants (58–75%) and create balls of pollen. In general the queen bee lays an egg on top of the pollen ball and seals the brood cell.
Some species of ants target or opportunistically feed on pollen. Since they cannot fly to the flowers like bees, they scavenge pollen grains from the ground and ingest them, storing the food in their foregut to regurgitate later to feed the offspring back at the nest. The indigestible membranes of the pollen are then added to their underground compost piles.
Early arthropods, with unspecialized mandible mouthparts, ate spores from early organisms such as mushrooms, ferns, and bacteria. Evidence of the evolution of mouthparts to specialize in Palynivory comes mostly from the beetle family, the most diverse group of palynivores and among the first insects to visit flowers. Incredibly, one out of every four animals on earth is a beetle.
Pollen comes in a multitude of shapes and sizes. Like any product of evolution, the microscopic grains have their own individual strategies of survival and successful reproduction.
As the cacophony of spring begins to deafen your senses, and the ragween pollen causes you to weep, keep your wits about you, because the entire natural world has gone sex crazy.
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