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Host social structure and microbial community structure in halictid bees.

March 25, 2014

I’ve just had a new paper come out in FEMS Microbiology Ecology. As I work a lot with halictid bees, a theme running through my science has been to look at how host social structure affects transmission and evolution of symbionts. For this new paper, I used social and solitary bee nests from the socially polymorphic bees Megalopta genalis and Megalopta centralis. By socially polymorphic, I mean that these bees have both social and solitary nests in the same population on Barro Colorado Island in Panama. I was therefore able to compare bacterial communities from social and solitary nests to determine if having workers affects the microbial communities associated with the bees and their nests. If you have been following this blog for a while, these were the nests I was collecting while I was in Panama, which I blogged about quite a bit.

I found that the social nests and solitary nests did not have very different bacterial communities, for the most part they were dominated by the environmental lactobacilli that I’ve found in sweat bees and leafcutter bees. So social structure, at least for these bees that are just at the cusp of sociality, does not influence bacterial community structure. But I did find that Wolbachia – that interesting insect-associated bacteria that messes with the host’s sex ratio or acts as a mutualist,was differentially abundant in the two host species. This is really interesting because the two host species are ecologically very similar, so why Wolbachia is abundant in one and not the other needs further investigation.

I also found that the bacterial communities differ by host stage. That is, Lactobacuillus kunkeei is found on the pollen provisions before the larval bee hatches from its egg, and larvae acquire this bacterium from their pollen provision. But once they become pupae, they mostly lose L. kunkeei, which they seem to only regain once they begin to forage on flowers.

My students and I are working on floral transmission more at Fresno State, and we hope to start functional assays to figure out how L. kunkeei might affect bee health. So there are many more questions to answer with wild-bee associated bacteria!

Here is the main figure from the paper, you can see how Wolbachia is common in M. centralis and not M. genalis:


And here is the PDF.

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