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What Is Palynology?

by David M. Jarzen
Palynology is the study of plant pollen, spores and certain
microscopic plankton organisms (collectively termed
palynomorphs) in both living and fossil form. Botanists use living
pollen and spores (actuopalynology) in the study of plant
relationships and evolution, while geologists (palynologists) may
use fossil pollen and spores (paleopalynology) to study past
environments, stratigraphy (the analysis of strata or layered rock)
historical geology and paleontology.

Pollen grain of Morning Glory (Ipomoea sp.)

The oil industry is credited with demonstrating the usefulness of
palynomorphs in the study of stratigraphic sequences of rocks
and the potential for oil and gas exploration. Because
palynomorphs are resistant to decomposition and are produced in
great abundance, their recovery from rocks and sediments via
special and careful chemical treatments is possible and provides

scientists with information needed to describe plant life of past

ages. By describing the sequence of selected palynomorphs
through the rock layers of Earth, stratigraphers (scientists who
study the rock layers of the earth) are able to correlate rocks of
the same age and may therefore locate and correlate layers that
contain oil or natural gas. Palynomorphs recovered from the gut
or intestinal tract of early humans, and those associated with
artifacts (pots, tools, or other cultural objects) found at their
grave sites have been used to understand the diets and hunting
practices of these early people. For instance, the pollen and
spores found in the feces recovered from the mummies of
humans living seven thousand years ago, allowed scientists to
describe the changes in die
Palynology in relation of Honey Industry
Honey was man's first sweetening material. Honey contains 70 to 75% invert
sugars, together with proteins, minerals, salts and water. Most showing
flowers secrete nectar, which serves to attract insects for pollination. Nectar
is composed chiefly of sucrose, with some fructose and glucose. After partial
digestion, nectar is converted into honey, and in this form, it is stored for
future use.
Honey is used as food by bees. Honey bees derive their food in the form of
nectar and pollens. While collecting the nectar and pollens they pollinate the
plants. Pollination by honey bees is a good example of symbiosis. It is
reciprocal, nutritive, disjunctive symbiosis wherein the honey bee obtains
food in the form of nectar and pollen from the flowers while pollinating them.
The honey bees are in certain respects the most efficient. The honey bees
are in certain respects the most efficient of all pollinating insects. This is
partly due to the fact that nectar is secreted in nectaries, and bees select
those plants which have the maximum sugar contents (70% to 80%) in the
nectar. The pollen supplies food in the form of proteins, fats, carbohydrates,
minerals, vitamins, enzymes, hormones etc. According to the source of
nectar, there is variation in the flavour and quality of honey. Bees fix their
preference for a particular plant species and thus show floral fidelity.
Although many plants are visited by bees, some are especially favoured, and
these are, afterwards cultivated near apairies; e.g., Pista, Jamb and Kavi as
used at Mahabaleshwar. From the samples of honey studied, the pollens of
Eugenia, Putragiva, Citrus, Plectranthus, Brassica, Sapindus etc., they work
continuously from the beginning to the end of the flowering season, partly
due to the fact that they visit flowers for both pollen and nectar and partly

because of their remarkable precision which leads them to visit a large

numbers of flowers of the same species in rapid succession. A honeybee, for
example, visits only one kind of flower on any collecting trip and usually on
any one day. Furthermore, the bees have hairy legs that are well fitted for
carrying pollen and their long, tongue-like probosces which enable them to
obtain nectar from irregular, tubular and partly closed corollas are recorded.
The anemphilous plants like Holoptelia, Borassus and Cocos also provide
pollen food to the young larvae of insects.
Besides the pollengrains, the honey sample may also contain fungal spores.
This may be due to

deliberate collection by bees to substitute pollens,


incidental collection due to the collection of pollens contaminated by

fungal spores or


wind-borne fungal spores.

There is occurrence of nectar-yeast, which is then found in some honey

samples. Some fungi called pollen moulds grow on pollen storage in the
boney-combs. Hence, the routine pollen analysis of such honey samples
invariably shows fungal spores.
Sometimes, honey gets contaminated with poisonous pollens; e.g., pollen of
Eugenia geniculata. Such honey may be toxic to both the bees as well as the
humans or it may be toxic only to human.
Diagnosis of honeys
Diagnosis of honey is done to check bee-diseases caused by pollen toxicity,
contamination due to fungal spores, or to detect poisonous honey, i.e.,
poisonous to human beings. Honey diagnosis protects the consumers.
The analysis of honey samples reveals the type of honey and its
geographical origin.
Types of honey
When a honey sample contains pollengrains of only a single genus or species
of flowering plants, then it is called unifloral honey. Such honey is usually
marketed under the name of the plant source, e.g., 'Jambul' honey, 'Gela'
honey etc. When the honey sample contains pollengrains belonging to
different plant sources it is called multi-floral honey.

Geographical origin of honey

There are a considerable number of plants that can be pollinated only by
bees and such plants are limited in their distribution to those regions that
are inhabited by bees. A spectrum of pollen types represented in a honey
samples of local honey often reveals the local flora which has a characteristic
plant association. This often enables to identity the geographical origin of the
honey sample. The honey is then marketed sometimes under the title of the
locality, e.g., Kashmir honey, Nepal honey, Mahabaleshwar honey, etc.
Honey Studies
Melissopalynology is the study of pollen in honey, with the purpose of
identifying the source plants used by bees in the production of honey. This is
important to honey producers because honey produced by pollen and nectar
from certain plants as mesquite, buckwheat, tupelo or citrus trees demand a
higher price on the market than that produced by other plant sources. Some
plants may produce nectar and pollen that is harmful to human health. A
careful monitoring of the pollen types found in honey may identify these
toxic sources and the honey produced may be kept out of the commercial
Pollen analysis has many other applications than those already mentioned. Some dependupon the
fact that nectar bearing plants rely on insect visits to effect pollination. Pollenstudies (e.g. Moar
1985) are used to determine the geographical origins of a honey, the floralsource of a particular
honey, and as a method for quality control of the product. It is morereliable than the traditional
tests based on taste, colour and odour.The method depends upon the fact that pollen is taken up
in the nectar by foraging bees andis incorporated into the honey store when the bee returns to the
hive. The detail of anyanalysis depends upon the desired outcome. Therefore, in order to
determine thegeographical origins of a honey analysis is based upon counts of 300 - 500 pollen
grainswhich allows recognition of a pollen spectrum from a particular area as well as
thecalculation of relative pollen frequencies to provide a rough approximation of nectar
sources.Thus a New Zealand honey containing goats rue (Galega officinalis) pollen

originates in the
Manawatu, honey with thyme (Thymus) comes from Central Otago, and a honey in
whichrewa rewa (Knightia excelsa) is frequent originated in the North Island. On
the internationalscene a pollen analyst in the northern hemisphere would conclude
that a honey yielding aspectrum including both manuka and white clover pollen
derived from New Zealand. Indeed,the presence of such pollen in so called English
clover honey has been used to convictdishonest Englishmen for selling their local
honey mixed with New Zealand clover honey aspure English honey.Determination
of the floral source of a honey demands examination by the more stringent
quantitative pollen analysis from which is derived the absolute number of pollen
grains in a10 gram sample. Tablets containing a known number of Lycopodium
spores, generallybetween 10,000 - 12,000, are added to the sample which is

otherwise prepared and the grainscounted by standard procedures. By this method

it is possible to determine whether a honeyis unifloral, i.e. derived from a single
source, or whether the honey is derived from a varietyof sources. Absolute counts
demand a knowledge of the pollen production of the speciesinvolved. Thus a
prolific producer of pollen e.g. kamahi, will contain many more pollengrains in
relation to its nectar content than a poor pollen producer such as thyme. The pollen
of the first is "over-represented" and that of the second is "under-represented" in
relation to amedium or "normal" pollen producer such as white clover. To be
accepted as a unifloralclover honey a sample must contain a minimum of 45%
clover honey as laid down by theInternational Commission for Bee Botany. On this
basis a unifloral kamahi honey mustontain a minimum of 60% kamahi pollen in
contrast to the minimum of 20% required of aunifloral thyme honey. Similarly
unifloral manuka and matagouri honey must contain 70%>respectively of the
principal pollen type whereas a rewa rewa honey is accepted as unifloral
if it contains no less than 10% rewa rewa pollen.In Europe honey imports are
subject to pollen analysis. Unless a named product conforms toaccepted standards,
as outlined above, it may be returned to the country of origin at theexporter's

Palynology is a useful tool in many applications, including a

survey of atmospheric pollen and spore production and dispersal
(aerobiology), in the study of human allergies, the archaeological
excavation of shipwrecks, and detailed analysis of animal diets.
Entomopalynology is the study of pollen found on the body or in
the gut of insects. It is useful for determining insect feeding and
migratory habits, especially as it involves economically important
insects (as the boll weevil, or earwigs). Forensic palynology, or
the use of pollen analysis in the solving of crimes, is used by
Crime Scene Investigators around the world.

Applications of Palynology
There are a few geological fields in which palynology can be applied to, here are
the major fields:




Quaternary Palynology

Geochronology - dating of rocks. Palynoflora are used to date rocks.

Palynomorphs are great indicators of narrow time ranges because of the rapid
evolution of the samples. Because they are present in rocks that don't usually have
fossils, the microscopic fossils are used as a time range instead of waiting for
complicated lab results.
Biostratigraphy - correlation of rock sections. This aspect of palynology is the
most important economically. Proper indentification of indicative palynomorphs
could lead to the discovery of oil, coal, and gas deposits. In fact, fossilized pollen was
first discovered in a coal thin section. Because pollen and spores have the tendency of
being dragged along with migrating petroleum through pourous rocks - they are good
indicators that petroleum isn't too far away. The small sizes of palynomorphs are
ideal for drill core samples. The colouration and type of palynomorph represents the
thermal maturity and hydrocarbon potential of the area.