Ecological effects on gut bacterial communities in wild bumblebee colonies


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1. Animal hosts harbour diverse and often specific bacterial communities (microbiota) in their gut. These microbiota can provide crucial services to the host such as aiding in digestion of food and immune defence. However, the ecological factors correlating with and eventually shaping these microbiota under natural conditions are poorly understood.

2. Bumblebees have recently been shown to possess simple and highly specific microbiota. We here examine the dynamics of these microbiota in field colonies of the bumblebee Bombus terrestris over one season. The gut bacteria were assessed with culture-independent methods, that is, with terminal restriction fragment length profiles of the 16S rRNA gene.

3. To further understand the factors that affect the microbiota, we experimentally manipulated field-placed colonies in a fully factorial experiment by providing additional food or by priming the workers’ immune system by injecting heat-killed bacteria. We furthermore looked at possible correlates of diversity and composition of the microbiota for (i) natural infections with the microbial parasites Crithidia bombi and Nosema bombi, (ii) bumblebee worker size, (iii) colony identity, and (iv) colony age.

4. We found an increase in diversity of the microbiota in individuals naturally infected with either C. bombi or N. bombi. Crithidia bombi infections, however, appear to be only indirectly linked with higher microbial diversity when comparing colonies. The treatments of priming the immune system with heat-killed bacteria and additional food supply, as well as host body size, had no effect on the diversity or composition of the microbiota. Host colony identity had only a weak effect on the composition of the microbiota at the level of resolution of our method. We found both significant increases and decreases in the relative abundance of selected bacterial taxa over the season.

5. We present the first study on the ecological dynamics of gut microbiota in bumblebees and identify parasite infections, colony identity and colony age as important factors influencing the diversity and composition of the bacterial communities. The absence of an effect of our otherwise effective experimental treatments suggests a remarkable ability of the host to maintain a homoeostasis in this community under widely different environments.