1. Platyprepia virginalis caterpillars are dietary generalists and feed on multiple host species within a single day. We conducted field experiments to evaluate their performance on diets consisting of only their primary food, Lupinus arboreus, or diets consisting of L. arboreus plus other acceptable host species.
2. We found that relative growth rates and rates of survival were higher when they fed on mixed diets compared to lupine only. These results were consistent with hypotheses that mixed diets provided balanced nutrition, diluted toxins, and/or allowed recovery from parasitoids, although our data did not allow us to separate these non-exclusive explanations.
3. We assayed alkaloids in their host foliage, in the caterpillars themselves, in parasitoids within caterpillars, in food boluses passing through their guts, and in frass that they excreted. We consistently found positive assays for alkaloids in foliage and in frass but negative assays in caterpillars, parasitoids, and food boluses. This suggests that the alkaloids that they ingest are metabolised or rendered non-reactive by unknown means during passage through the gut. We found no support for the hypothesis that mixed diets prevented caterpillars from exhausting food supplies or allowed them to sequester chemicals from their alkaloid-containing hosts.
4. Behavioural observations revealed that previous experience influenced a caterpillar's likelihood of moving to a different host. Caterpillars that had previously fed on other hosts were more likely to move to lupine while caterpillars previously collected on lupine were equally likely to choose more lupine or a different host.
5. These results are unusual in providing a clear and consistent benefit of diet mixing in a natural field setting where multiple ecological factors act upon the caterpillars.