Mechanistic models for predicting species’ distribution patterns present particular advantages and challenges relative to models developed from statistical correlations between distribution and climate. They can be especially useful for predicting the range of invasive species whose distribution has not yet reached equilibrium. Here, we illustrate how a physiological model of development for the invasive Argentine ant can be connected to differences in micro-site suitability, population dynamics and climatic gradients; processes operating at quite different spatial scales. Our study is located in the subalpine shrubland of Haleakala National Park, Hawaii, where the spread of Argentine ants Linepithema humile has been documented for the past twenty-five years. We report four main results. First, at a microsite level, the accumulation of degree-days recorded in potential ant nest sites under bare ground or rocks was significantly greater than under a groundcover of grassy vegetation. Second, annual degree-days measured where population boundaries have not expanded (456–521 degree-days), were just above the developmental requirements identified from earlier laboratory studies (445 degree-days above 15.9°C). Third, rates of population expansion showed a strong linear relationship with annual degree-days. Finally, an empirical relationship between soil degree-days and climate variables mapped at a broader scale predicts the potential for future range expansion of Argentine ants at Haleakala, particularly to the west of the lower colony and the east of the upper colony. Variation in the availability of suitable microsites, driven by changes in vegetation cover and ultimately climate, provide a hierarchical understanding of the distribution of Argentine ants close to their cold-wet limit of climatic tolerances. We conclude that the integration of physiology, population dynamics and climate mapping holds much promise for making more robust predictions about the potential spread of invasive species.