Early stages of lineage divergence in insect herbivores are often related to shifts in host plant use and divergence in mating capabilities, which may lead to sexual isolation of populations of herbivorous insects. We examined host preferences, degree of differentiation in mate choice, and divergence in cuticular morphology using near-infrared spectroscopy in the grasshopper Hesperotettix viridis aiming to understand lineage divergence. In Kansas (USA), H. viridis is an oligophagous species feeding on Gutierrezia and Solidago host species. To identify incipient mechanisms of lineage divergence and isolation, we compared host choice, mate choice, and phenotypic divergence among natural grasshopper populations in zones of contact with populations encountering only one of the host species. A significant host-based preference from the two host groups was detected in host-paired feeding preference studies. No-choice mate selection experiments revealed a preference for individuals collected from the same host species independent of geographic location, and little mating was observed between individuals collected from different host species. Female mate choice tests between males from the two host species resulted in 100% fidelity with respect to host use. Significant differentiation in colour and cuticular composition of individuals from different host plants was observed, which correlated positively with host choice and mate choice. No evidence for reinforcement in the zone of contact was detected, suggesting that divergent selection for host plant use promotes sexual isolation in this species. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 100, 866–878.