I have been going through literature on insect food choices. I plan to study the effect of prior experience on food choices in both adults and larvae of the red flour beetle, Tribolium castaneum. There are plenty of studies that focus on larval and adult experience having an effect on adult preference. I would like to look at how larval experience changes larval choice, but only if it has some ecological relevance. However, I could not find a single study that provides an ecological relevance to larvae making food choices.

This appears to be due to the fact that larvae are usually sessile, and since adult females are the ones making the oviposition choices, therefore most studies seem to assume that the choices of the larvae don't matter. (Preference Performance Hypothesis)

Larval food choice might be ecologically relevant under conditions where females make "mistakes" during oviposition, say if the environment is spatially/temporally fluctuating. But if they show limited dispersal (or slower dispersal than adults), then does their choice really matter?

Does anyone know of any examples (published or unpublished) where insect larval food choice is ecologically relevant? It would help me out a lot to design my study. Thanks in advance!

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Biology.SE, and congratulations on a great first question! One suggestion: the 'ecological relevance' criterion is a bit unclear - could you clarify what you would or would not consider to meet this criterion? $\endgroup$
    – arboviral
    Sep 16, 2016 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ @arboviral I see, I'm sorry for being vague. Well, the criterion for 'ecologically relevant' would be - 1. The larval choice actually occurs under natural conditions. 2. There are life-history or evolutionary consequences to this behaviour. EITHER of these criteria would be sufficient to call it 'ecologically relevant'. It would be fantastic if it were both. $\endgroup$
    – vrk
    Sep 16, 2016 at 15:42

1 Answer 1


The diamondback moth (DBM), Plutella xylostella L. (Lepidoptera: Plutellidae) is one of the most important pests of cruciferous crops in the world.. A strain capable of complete development on sugar pea (Pisum sativum L. var. macrocarpon) has recently appeared. A recent study (Henniges-Janssen, Heckel & Groot (2014), "Preference of Diamondback Moth Larvae for Novel and Original Host Plant after Host Range Expansion"; link) compared the feeding preferences of L4 larvae reared during previous larval instars on cabbage and pea. Pea-reared larvae of this strain preferred peas, while cabbage-reared larvae preferred cabbage. L4 larvae of the original strain preferred cabbage irrespective of their previous diet. I don't think this example has been shown to occur in the field, but the two plants are both fed upon by these caterpillars in the wild.

There is also evidence that larvae of Cydia pomonella (codling moth), a marjo agricultural pest of orchards with a near-global distribution, learn to avoid apple flavoured with saccharine if they have previously encountered saccharine-flavoured noxious plants (Pszczolkowski & Brown, 2005); this probably meets your second criterion for ecological relevance more closely (evidence for learning to avoid odour/flavour cues encountered in a toxic plant, thereby increasing survival) but it's less relevant to a real-world field situation than the first example.

I also found an article on associative learning in insects here that may include some useful examples.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks, @arboviral! The references helped! Unfortunately, I have not yet found examples for the first criterion for 'ecologically relevant'. I guess the second will have to do until someone actually observes larval choices occuring in the field and characterizes conditions leading to that. $\endgroup$
    – vrk
    Sep 18, 2016 at 14:43

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