Many native herbivores are known to attack exotic plants, and we can expect these interactions to occur with increasing frequency in coming years as invasive plants become naturalized and new invaders arrive in native communities. In some cases, evolutionary biologists and ecologists have learned a great deal from insects adapting to novel hosts. However, there is more to be learned and we suggest that the ecological study of exotic host colonization by native insects has been impeded by a lack of focus in the questions being asked, and also from overlap with other areas of plant–insect ecology, including the study of specialization. In the present paper, a conceptual model is described for the colonization of a novel host-plant, which focuses on the relationship between occupancy and availability. Occupancy is the fraction of patches of novel hosts that are utilized by an herbivore, and availability is the abundance or presence of a novel host on the landscape. Considering the slope of that relationship (between occupancy and availability), hypotheses are suggested that involve dispersal and, most important, population growth rate of an insect herbivore associated with an exotic host. A focus on the occupancy–availability relationship highlights the strengths and weaknesses of common experimental approaches, such as preference–performance experiments. Suggestions for future work are offered that include integration with evolutionary theory and exploration of more complex demographic and ecological scenarios.