Microbial Ecology

, Volume 62, Issue 1, pp 121–133 | Cite as

Bacterial Communities in Central European Bumblebees: Low Diversity and High Specificity

  • Hauke Koch
  • Paul Schmid-Hempel
Invertebrate Microbiology


Recent studies on the microbial flora of the honeybee gut have revealed an apparently highly specific community of resident bacteria that might play a role in immune defence and food preservation for their hosts. However, at present, very little is known about the diversity and ecology of bacteria occurring in non-domesticated bees like bumblebees, which are of similar importance as honeybees for the pollination of agricultural and wild flowers. To fill this gap in knowledge, we examined six of the most common bumblebee species in Central Europe from three locations in Germany and Switzerland for their bacterial communities. We used a culture-independent molecular approach based on sequencing the 16S rRNA gene from a selection of individuals and examining a larger number of samples by terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism profiles. The gut flora was dominated by very few and mostly undescribed groups of bacteria belonging to the Proteobacteria, Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes and Actinobacteria. This core set of bacteria was present in all of the examined bumblebee species. These bacteria are similar to, but distinct from, bacteria previously described from the honeybee gut. Significant differences were observed between the communities of bacteria in the different bumblebee species; the effect of sampling location was less strong. A novel group of Betaproteobacteria additionally shows evidence for host species-specific genotypes. The gut flora of bumblebees therefore is apparently composed of relatively few highly specialized bacteria, indicating a strong interaction and possibly important functions with their hosts.


Lactic Acid Bacterium Clone Library Bacteroidetes Terminal Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism Betaproteobacteria 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We are thankful to Roland Bürki for assistance in the lab during his undergraduate project. Regula Schmid-Hempel, Anna Lazzaro and Nikki E. Freed gave helpful advice on the lab work and data analysis. Martina Tognazzo collected and dissected the bumblebees from Switzerland. Parts of the data analysed in this paper were generated in the Genetic Diversity Centre of ETH Zurich. Bumblebee samples from Germany were collected with permission from the Untere Naturschutzbehörde Landkreis Celle (Lothar Sander); bumblebee samples from the Swiss National Park were collected with permission of the Forschungskommission des Schweizerischen Nationalparks (Dr. Thomas Scheurer). Financial supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant no. 31003A-116057 to PSH).


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ETH ZürichInstitute of Integrative Biology (IBZ)ZürichSwitzerland

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