Ew, pollinators have cooties

Welcome to my mature science blog.

This paper just came out yesterday (or I just found it yesterday) on the microbial communities of flower surfaces.  Apparently, when an insect visits a flower, it changes the community of microbes on the surface of the flower.

There are a couple of really cool implications of this. The authors focus on the idea that these microbial communities could be like fingerprints that indicate the identity of the floral visitors (Ushio et al 2015). Many ecologists are interested in doing this because they like to build networks of species interactions to study the structure of ecological communities.

NB: I’m not a huge fan of the last sentence of their abstract:

In conclusion, species-specific insect microbial communities specific to insect species can be transferred from an insect body to a flower surface, and these microbes can serve as a “fingerprint” of the insect species, especially for large-bodied insects.

But I think I understand what they’re getting at….specifically.

In the study they compared the microbial communities to visual observations of floral visitors and found some congruence, which does raise the question of why you would go to the trouble to figure out the microbial community if you could just sit outside at watch the flowers to get a similar result.  (But I’m a field biologist, so I have my biases.)

I also think this study is interesting from the perspective of disease transmission.  We already know that diseases from honeybees can spread to closely related wild bees, like bumblebees. And we have some evidence that pollinators can move diseases around between flowers (I keep meaning to write a post on that), so this study is more evidence that the process of pollination can have detrimental side effects for both parties involved.

The other interesting implication, which is downplayed by the paper, is if these pollinators have relatively stable or consistent microbial communities on their bodies (which the paper suggests) and these communities are distinct from the microbes present in the environment (also supported by the paper), then why and how are these communities important to their hosts?  There is some unstudied relationship there that could be important.

This is true for humans too; there is a lot of research to support the idea that the human microbiome is incredibly important to our health.  And we know that 80 million bacteria are transferred per every (intimate) 10 second kiss…

I think that microbiota have a significant role to play and that they are often underestimated.

Also, pollinators have cooties!



9 thoughts on “Ew, pollinators have cooties

  1. You have a very unique way of looking at things I want to see if I understand what those scientists discovered. Pollinators have microbes resident on their bodies that transfer to the flower when they visit. So the scientist want to use that transfer to see what pollinators visit what flowers. Good so far? So, is the opposite true? Do flowers have microbes that transfer to the pollinators? Does this transfer do anything for either one except a sort of mutual exchange of “Killroy was here.” kind of information? I have one idea why scientists might want to study the flower transfer to the pollinators, it might be that they are curious to see if the pollinators work on more species of flower then they think they do at the moment. And it would be impractical, even for a renowned field biologist, to follow around enough pollinators to enough places to get enough information to draw a sound conclusion. Were there enough “enough”s in that sentence? I like the idea that there would be a mutual exchange of microbial “information” between them. It makes more . . . community. But it would be nice to know if that exchange changed anything or was part of some larger consequence. And about disease . . . could the floral microbes cause illness in the pollinators, or perhaps inoculate them against some disease? I don’t know enough about the exchanges to ask good questions.

    • Yes! Excellent question…the researchers didn’t really answer it! I totally think the microbe exchange has more of a role than just marking the event, but there’s no evidence yet. We can also figure out the plant perspective by looking at the pollen grains the bees carry….part of my current research. And yes again, the flowers can be a site of disease transmission for the bees and the bees can transfer disease to the flowers! These are awesome questions!

      • Thanks for answering them. I was not sure I understood enough to ask what I wanted to know . My kids say I have the “‘satiable” curiosity of the elephant’s child from Kipling, one of their favorite stories. I think there must be a lot we don’t know yet about bees, and they are so important to the world. Nice someone like you is trying to remedy that situation!

      • That’s the thing getting a PhD taught me…I know nothing! And in general, we know nothing, really. It’s funny I thought it would be the opposite, but the more I learn and study the world, the more I realize that our understanding is really poor of most things.

  2. A “mature” blog? Between the “cooties” and “intimate” kisses, I guess this is PG-13. Just for comparison sake, are there fewer microbes exchanged when I’m talking and my dog sneaks in a french kiss? Love the pic!

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