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Keywords:

  • bacteria;
  • insects;
  • microbial biology;
  • species interactions

Associations with symbiotic microorganisms are a major source for evolutionary innovation in eukaryotes. Arthropods have long served as model systems to study such associations, especially since Paul Buchner’s (1965) seminal work that beautifully illustrated the enormous diversity of microorganisms associated with insects. Particularly high taxonomic and functional diversities of microbial symbionts have been found in the guts and gut-associated organs of insects. These microorganisms play important roles in the digestion, nutrition and defence of the host. However, most studies of gut microorganisms have focused on single host taxa, limiting the ability to draw general conclusions on composition and functional roles of the insect gut microbiota. This is especially true for the diverse and important insect order Hymenoptera that comprises the bees, wasps and ants. Recently, Russell et al. (2009) analysed the bacterial community associated with diverse ant species and found evidence for changes in the microbial gut community coinciding with the evolution of herbivory. In this issue of Molecular Ecology, Martinson et al. (2011) provide the first broad-scale bacterial survey for bees. Their findings substantiate earlier evidence for a surprisingly simple gut microbiota in honeybees (Apis mellifera) that is composed of only six to ten major phylotypes. Importantly, Martinson et al. demonstrate for the first time that the same bacterial phylotypes are major constituents of other Apis as well as Bombus species, but not of any other bees and wasps outside of the corbiculate bees, a clade of four tribes within the subfamily Apinae. These results indicate that corbiculate bees harbour a specific and possibly co-evolved bacterial community in their digestive tract. Furthermore, the comparison with other bees and wasps suggests that changes in social lifestyle may have had a stronger effect on the evolution of the gut microbiota than the dietary shift from predatory ancestors to pollen-feeding (i.e. herbivorous) species. These findings have far-reaching implications for research on the microbial symbionts of insects as well as on the nutritional physiology of the ecologically and economically important group of corbiculate bees.