Ecological divergence can cause speciation if adaptive traits have pleiotropic effects on mate choice. In Heliconius butterflies, mimetic patterns play a role in mate detection between sister species, as well as signalling to predators. Here we show that male butterflies from four recently diverged parapatric populations of Heliconius melpomene are more likely to approach and court their own colour patterns as compared with those of other races. A few exceptions, where males were more attracted to patterns other than their own, suggest that some mimetic patterns are sub-optimal in mate choice. Genotype frequencies in hybrid zones between races of H. melpomene suggest that mating is random, so reinforcement is unlikely to have played a role in intra-specific divergence. In summary, co-evolved divergence of colour pattern and mate preference occurs rapidly and is likely the first step in Heliconius speciation.