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!