The specificity of a horizontally transmitted microbial symbiosis is often defined by molecular communication between host and microbe during initial engagement, which can occur in discrete stages. In the symbiosis between Steinernema nematodes and Xenorhabdus bacteria, previous investigations focused on bacterial colonization of the intestinal lumen (receptacle) of the nematode infective juvenile (IJ), as this was the only known persistent, intimate and species-specific contact between the two. Here we show that bacteria colonize the anterior intestinal cells of other nematode developmental stages in a species-specific manner. Also, we describe three processes that only occur in juveniles that are destined to become IJs. First, a few bacterial cells colonize the nematode pharyngeal-intestinal valve (PIV) anterior to the intestinal epithelium. Second, the nematode intestine constricts while bacteria initially remain in the PIV. Third, anterior intestinal constriction relaxes and colonizing bacteria occupy the receptacle. At each stage, colonization requires X. nematophila symbiosis region 1 (SR1) genes and is species-specific: X. szentirmaii, which naturally lacks SR1, does not colonize unless SR1 is ectopically expressed. These findings reveal new aspects of Xenorhabdus bacteria interactions with and transmission by theirSteinernema nematode hosts, and demonstrate that bacterial SR1 genes aid in colonizing nematode epithelial surfaces.