One of the key predictions of general life-history theory is that reproduction incurs a survival cost. Although there is a convincing body of evidence to support this prediction at the intraspecific level in insects, evidence at the interspecific level is relatively scarce, as is the case for other animals. By employing two methods of phylogenetically controlled analysis, we demonstrate the existence of a negative correlation between life-span and early life investment in reproduction, across a wide diversity of Lepidoptera. The measure of initial reproductive effort used was the ’ovigeny index’, defined as the proportion of the lifetime potential egg complement that is mature (ready to lay) upon female emergence. We present a graphical model for holometabolous insects, illustrating the trade-offs that are hypothesized to occur among capital resources (soma vs non-soma and initial eggs vs storage) in relation to variation in ovigeny index. These trade-offs, for which there is some empirical support, are postulated to underlie the life-span/ovigeny index relationship observed in the Lepidoptera and also in other insect orders. © 2007 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2007, 90, 293–302.