Abstract Bacteria inoculated on surfaces create colonies that spread out, forming patterns shaped by their mutual interactions. Here, by a combination of experiments and modeling, we address two striking phenomena observed when colonies spread out circularly, without dendritic instabilities. First, the velocity of spreading is generically found to decrease as levels of nutrients initially deposited on the surface increase. We demonstrate that the slowdown is due to phenomena of differentiation, leading to the coexistence of bacteria in different states of motility and we model their dynamics. Second, colonies spreading out from different inocula on the same surface are observed to merge or repel (halting at a finite distance), depending on experimental conditions. We identify the parameters that determine the fate of merging versus repulsion, and predict the profile of arrest in the cases of repulsion.