Abstract. 1. In studies of insect-host plant interaction it is often suggested that insects preferentially colonize host plants (or sites within plants) on which their fitness is maximized (a positive covariance of preference and performance). This suggestion stems from the assumption that natural selection has driven the system toward optimal use of resources.
2. Our study of the galling aphid Smynthurodes betae Westw. demonstrates that the distribution of galls on leaves is not due to preference, and can be altered by manipulating the aphid arrival time or the shoot growth rate.
3. We found no correlation between gall density and performance (aphid clone size) at different positions along the shoot.
4. Because leaves on the growing shoot are not equally responsive to aphid stimulation, the colonizers have no choice but to settle on leaves that are at the right stage when they arrive.
5. S.betae colonizers did not discriminate between shoots of their host and a congeneric non-host, on which their fitness is invariably zero.
6. Synchronization between galler and host plant phenologies seems to be the key to the observed distribution of galls on the tree. The data give no support to the preference-performance hypothesis.