Grains of pollen as seen by an electron microscope


Behold, the face of the enemy.

(Why, yes, my nose is rather runny, why do you ask?)

Urge to vengeance aside, my main reaction while flipping through this gallery of pollen images was wonder at the intense variety of sizes, shapes, textures and tricks floating through the microscopic world of plant pollen. This group shot ranges from the (relatively) giant orb of pumpkin pollen in the center, to the teensy blue dot that belongs to the forget-me-not. Some of the grains seem like completely alien things, but others bear a striking resemblance to the plants they help create—for instance, I guessed that Venus fly trap pollen went with the Venus fly trap before I read the caption.

All these shots are the work of Swedish Swiss scientist Martin Oeggerli, who makes amazing art using a scanning electron microscope. The images actually start out in black and white, with Oeggerli going back and adding color, pixel by pixel. The colors can, but don't necessarily, reflect reality, but they do help make textures stand out and make the form more easily readable by your eye.

The Telegraph: Full pollen image gallery

Martin Oeggerli explains the technology behind his photos, from microscope, to sample preparation, to coloration.

Image: Martin Oeggerli/Micronaut


  1. Beautiful but I have one anal critique: the reflection effect is wrong (most obvious with the central spherical grain). Think it detracts from the quality of the originals.

  2. The colours may or may not “reflect reality”, but those reflections sure don’t. Has this been submitted to Photoshopdisasters yet?

  3. I grew up in small towns. In the Spring, at one school I attended, the pollen used to accumulate on the rink. The breeze would blow it around and it would pile up in the corners in a carpet so thick that you could scoop it up by the handful. Yeah, by the handful…literally.

    I was fifteen or so the first time I met, or even heard of, anyone who was allergic to pollen – after I moved to the big city.

    I used to call the complaint “allergic to concrete”.

  4. I agree with windmill. The domain .ch stands for confederatio helvetica and not Sweden (.se). Besides that the name Oeggerli sounds very Swiss-German.

    1. …. plus as you can see in the caption he’s all swiss. Although I kinda wish we had more things like that here in Sweden.

  5. Sorry, guys. The “Swedish” error was a typo which I blame on my antihistamines. He is Swiss. It’s fixed now.

  6. I didn’t even notice there were reflections there until you pointed it out. I guess that’s one reason I’m not a graphic artist or designer.

  7. Readers interested in this post shou’d definitely check out work bu Ernst Haeckel, who *drew* images of pollen by hand* after seeing them through a microscope in the 19th century, Amazing artwork.

  8. How can the colors reflect reality if the objects being “photographed” are smaller than the wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum (roughly between 390 and 750 nm)?
    Presumably why the image is being made with reflected/absorbed/transmitted electrons instead of photons is for the very reason that these objects are too small to reflect colors at all. I suppose these are perhaps the colors these objects would have were they enlarged–that in itself would be an interesting artistic/scientific question to pursue, perhaps starting by considering the elements and molecules these things are made of and how those interact with visible light at the macro level…
    All that aside, thanks for sharing the beautiful images that are, nevertheless, of real parts of our amazing world!

  9. For the record, pollen grains tend to be on the scale of perhaps 1-100 µm (1 µm = 1000 nm). So…perhaps these things do interact with colored light, just not at a resolution that can produce such detailed images as are achievable using electron-imagery…

  10. What’s interesting to me is that pollens actually look like little, nasty torture devices. They appear sharp, point, prickly and thoroughly unpleasant. I realize that this is totally unscientific, but I wonder of there is any correlation between appearance, and the effect they have on humans? (Sort of how we feel sympathy to babies, and baby animals, because they appear ‘cute’.) Which to us allergy sufferers they actually are.

    1. Somehow I can’t imagine pollen evolving to warn predators (which of course we’re not) of their dangers (to a vast minority) when viewed under an electron-microscope.

    2. It’s not quite a coincidence. Like many torture devices, the point of many pollen shapes is to stick into things, so that they can be carried by bees or caught by the female flowers. I would guess this stickiness is part of why they can be so irritating to us.

  11. FWIW, if you suffer from allergies, you should consider being cleaner.

    Using saline eye drops regularly, as well as sinus irrigation — snuffing up water + salt (perhaps + baking soda), then blowing your nose — are simple and very inexpensive helps/”cures” for allergies, colds, flus and other upper respiratory tract infections. They are comparable to avoiding skin rashes and irritations by bathing regularly.

    You can get a sinus irrigation device from any drug store these days, or use your water pik with your homemade saline, or any old cup. Just add like 1/4-1/2 teaspoon of salt to water, and 1/2-1 teaspoon baking soda — something that tastes comparable to your own tears — will be fine. Doesn’t need to be exact, just so it’s comfortable.

    Maggie, I suffered from terrible allergies each year my whole life, until I started rinsing my sinuses once or twice a day (more if I do actually get sick). No more. Now, I feel like an idiot for suffering all those years.

    Make today your “freedom from allergy” day, and go wash the pollen away.

  12. The study of pollen is called palynology, and isn’t just for the pretty pictures. You can find pollen grains in rocks — to help with dating something (if you know the age of the rock or the pollen), or on criminals (to perhaps see where they’ve been).

    See also here.

  13. The first time I ever saw an electron microscope someone asked why the images weren’t in colour -the image in question being a gold nanoparticle about 5 nm across. The technician gave an interesting little spiel asking exactly what we thought colour was at that sort of length scale.

    Many years later I find myself in a similar position as the tech… but I’m much less mature. Whenever someone asks me why the images are black and white I say it’s because monochrome electrons are cheaper, we only get the RGB electrons out for the really fancy images. It’s the cleanroom technician’s version of the left-handed screwdriver, glass hammer style of joke.

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