• adult host choice;
  • hybridization;
  • speciation;
  • Zeiraphera

Abstract The chances for sympatric speciation are improved if ecological divergence leads to assortative mating as a by-product. This effect is known in parasites that find mates using host cues, but studies of larch- and pine-feeding races of the larch budmoth (Zeiraphera diniana, Lepidoptera: Tortricidae) suggest it may also occur when mate attraction is via sex pheromones that are independent of habitat. We have previously shown that females releasing pheromones on or near their own host attract more males of their own race than if placed on the alternative host. This host effect would enhance assortative mating provided adults preferentially alight on their native hosts. Here we investigate alighting preferences in natural mixed forest using a novel likelihood analysis of genotypic clusters based on three semidiagnostic allozyme loci. Both larch and pine females show a realized alighting preference for their own host of 86%. The equivalent preferences of males were 79% for the larch race and 85% for the pine race. These preferences are also detectable in small-scale laboratory experiments, where alighting preferences of larch and pine races towards their own hosts were, respectively, 67 and 66% in females and 69 and 63% in males. Pure larch race moths reared in the laboratory had alighting choice similar to moths from natural populations, while hybrids were intermediate, showing that alighting preferences were heritable and approximately additive. The field estimates of alighting preference, coupled with earlier work on mate choice, yield an estimated rate of natural hybridization between sympatric host races of 2.2–3.8% per generation. Divergent alighting choice enhances pheromone-mediated assortative mating today, and is likely to have been an important cause of assortative mating during initial divergence in host use. Because resources are normally ‘coarse-grained’ in space and time, assortative mating due to ecological divergence may be a more important catalyst of sympatric speciation than generally realized.