Insects are the most diverse group of animals and colonize almost all environments on our planet. This diversity is reflected in the structure and function of the microbial communities inhabiting the insect digestive system. As in mammals, the gut microbiota of insects can have important symbiotic functions, complementing host nutrition, facilitating dietary breakdown or providing protection against pathogens. There is an increasing number of insect models that are experimentally tractable, facilitating mechanistic studies of gut microbiota–host interactions. In this Review, we will summarize recent findings that have advanced our understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying the symbiosis between insects and their gut microbiota. We will open the article with a general introduction to the insect gut microbiota and then turn towards the discussion of particular mechanisms and molecular processes governing the colonization of the insect gut environment as well as the diverse beneficial roles mediated by the gut microbiota. The Review highlights that, although the gut microbiota of insects is an active field of research with implications for fundamental and applied science, we are still in an early stage of understanding molecular mechanisms. However, the expanding capability to culture microbiomes and to manipulate microbe–host interactions in insects promises new molecular insights from diverse symbioses.