A backhoe approaches a pine tree at the height of allergy season. It takes only a single nudge — boop! — and a massive cloud of yellow dust oozes from the branches like a toxic fog.
But that's no fog. As anyone who has to park their car under a tree in springtime will tell you, this cloud is pure pollen.
Pollen is a grainy, plant-produced substance that carries the tools that seed-plants need to create male gametes — aka, sperm. While pollen is not actually sperm itself, pollen grains do contain the cells necessary to transfer the male half of the plant's DNA to a compatible plant's female counterparts (like the pistil and female cones). You could say, as Live Science writer Natalie Wolchover once did, that pollen is plant sperm powder.
The sneeze-inducing scene above was captured in Millville, New Jersey, earlier this week and has since been viewed more than 3 million times. While the footage left some viewers scratching their heads in amazement, it left many others rubbing their eyes in painful familiarity. [9 Myths About Allergy Season]
"This [scene] is not unusual," Sheila McCormick, an adjunct professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of California, Berkeley, told Live Science. "In general, most plants produce much more pollen than is needed. For example, a single corn plant produces 2 [million] to 5 million pollen grains, and an ear of corn has a few hundred seeds. This is especially true for plants that are wind-pollinated."
Pine trees, like the ones in the video above, are no exception. Some species of pine can produce up to 5 lbs. (2.2 kilograms) of pollen in just a few weeks, according to Robert Bardon, associate dean for extension in the department of forestry and environmental resources at North Carolina State University. Why make so much pollen? Call it offspring insurance.
"From an evolutionary perspective, large quantities of pollen dispersed by wind will ensure that the species can be reproduced over large areas," Bardon told the Charlotte Observer.
Once unleashed by the wind, pine pollen can travel up to 300 feet (91 meters) from its origin tree, Bardon said. By spreading their seed far and wide, trees ensure their genetic diversity. And they also ensure that many, many people will be washing their cars a lot this summer.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.