A distinctive microbial community of approximately nine bacterial species clusters inhabits the bee gut.
These bacteria are host-adapted, and each species cluster occupies particular niches and spatial locations in the bee.
The gut microbial community of the bee is transmitted through social contact, similar to the mode of transmission in mammals.
The characteristic microbial community of the bee gut can be perturbed and invaded by opportunistic microorganisms, which resembles disease states in humans.
There is substantial strain-level diversity in the bee gut microbiota, with individual strains harbouring unique sets of genes with distinct functional capabilities. How this diversity arises and is maintained is not well understood.
Metabolically, most members of the microbial community in the bee gut are fermentative, breaking down the carbohydrate-rich diet of bees into products, such as lactic acid and acetate. Although not yet well-established, these fermentative microorganisms may have a role in contributing to the nutrition of hosts.
The normal bee gut microbiota has been associated with lower levels of infection with pathogens, which may indicate a beneficial role of the microbiota for the host bee.
The bee gut microbiota can be cultured in vitro, and gnotobiotic bees can be easily produced, which makes bees a tractable model for the study of the symbiosis of gut microorganisms.
The gut microbiota can have profound effects on hosts, but the study of these relationships in humans is challenging. The specialized gut microbial community of honey bees is similar to the mammalian microbiota, as both are mostly composed of host-adapted, facultatively anaerobic and microaerophilic bacteria. However, the microbial community of the bee gut is far simpler than the mammalian microbiota, being dominated by only nine bacterial species clusters that are specific to bees and that are transmitted through social interactions between individuals. Recent developments, which include the discovery of extensive strain-level variation, evidence of protective and nutritional functions, and reports of eco-physiological or disease-associated perturbations to the microbial community, have drawn attention to the role of the microbiota in bee health and its potential as a model for studying the ecology and evolution of gut symbionts.
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This work was supported by the US National Institutes of Health (award R01 GM108477) and the US National Science Foundation Dimensions of Biodiversity (awards 1046153 and 1415604 to N.A.M).
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
- Species clusters
Bacterial groups that contain closely related strains or species.
- Core microbiota
The set of microbial species that is present in most members of a host species.
The outer layer of the insect integument, which is primarily composed of chitin.
- Malpighian tubules
Part of the insect excretory system that moves waste from the body cavity to the digestive tract for excretion.
- Corbiculate bees
A related group of bees that are characterized by the presence of corbicula (pollen baskets) on their hindlimbs, and which include the social honey bees, bumble bees and stingless bees.
A type of social organization that is exemplified by cooperative brood care, reproductive division of labour and the cohabitation of overlapping generations.
- Royal jelly
A highly nutritious secretion that is produced by worker bees and is initially fed to all larvae; continued feeding after three days results in the development of queens.
- Blind guts
Sac-like guts without an exit for the expulsion of waste.
The transfer of food, fluids or secretions between individuals through direct contact.
- Foulbrood disease
A bacterial disease that is caused by the infection of the gut of honey bee larvae, which results in the death of the brood.
The entire gene set of a group of related bacteria, such as that of a bacterial species.
Cross-feeding, whereby metabolic interactions between two organisms enhance the growth of each other.
An organism in which the strains of microorganisms that are present are fully known.
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Kwong, W., Moran, N. Gut microbial communities of social bees. Nat Rev Microbiol 14, 374–384 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrmicro.2016.43
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