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Faecal diet gives bumblebees defensive bacteria that protect them from parasites

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Bumblebees begin their adult lives by eating their sisters’ faeces. After many months as helpless, hungry larvae, they spin a silken cocoon and transform their bodies. When they emerge, ready to face the world, they get mouthfuls of poo. It may not sound like an auspicious start, but it’s essential. The faeces contain special bacteria that act as part of the bee’s immune system, protecting it from an incredibly dangerous parasite.

Gut bacteria are important partners for many animals. We humans have up to 100 trillion microbes in our bowels, and this “microbiota” outnumbers our own cells by ten to one. They act like a hidden, writhing organ. They break down our food. They influence our behaviour. And they safeguard our health by crowding out other bacteria that could cause disease. It seems that gut bacteria play a similar role in bumblebees.

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