Behaviours such as chemotaxis can facilitate metabolic exchanges between phytoplankton and heterotrophic bacteria, which ultimately regulate oceanic productivity and biogeochemistry. However, numerically dominant picophytoplankton have been considered too small to be detected by chemotactic bacteria, implying that cell–cell interactions might not be possible between some of the most abundant organisms in the ocean. Here we examined how bacterial behaviour influences metabolic exchanges at the single-cell level between the ubiquitous picophytoplankton Synechococcus and the heterotrophic bacterium Marinobacter adhaerens, using bacterial mutants deficient in motility and chemotaxis. Stable-isotope tracking revealed that chemotaxis increased nitrogen and carbon uptake of both partners by up to 4.4-fold. A mathematical model following thousands of cells confirmed that short periods of exposure to small but nutrient-rich microenvironments surrounding Synechococcus cells provide a considerable competitive advantage to chemotactic bacteria. These findings reveal that transient interactions mediated by chemotaxis can underpin metabolic relationships among the ocean’s most abundant microorganisms.