Abstract. 1. Seventy-seven individual last-instar caterpillars foraging in the field were examined for 6 h each. They represented four species of Arctiidae of similar size and habitat use. Two, Hypocrisias minima and Pygarctia roseicapitis, are specialists restricted to particular plant genera. The other two, Grammia geneura and Estigmene acrea, are extreme generalists that use many host plant species from multiple plant families.
2. Parameters of behavioural efficiency were monitored. Generalists spent more time walking, rejected more potential host plants, took longer to decide to feed after inspecting a plant, and took relatively more small feeding bouts compared with specialists.
3. This is the first test of differential foraging efficiency in the field in relation to diet breadth of insects and the data indicate that generalists are less efficient in their foraging activities and may suffer from divided attention. The need for attentiveness to enhance efficiency and thereby reduce ecological risk is discussed.