Comparison of closely related species can elucidate adaptive differences in species characteristics. The present study compares the effect of experience on the host-finding behaviour of two Cotesia (Hymenoptera: Braconidae) parasitoid species that differ in their degree of specialization. After multiple experiences with host larvae, females of the generalist parasitoid Cotesia glomerata showed a clear preference for volatiles from Pieris brassicae-infested Brussels sprouts leaves over P. rapae-infested Brussels sprouts leaves in two-choice tests (‘preference learning at herbivore level’). A single experience with a host did not lead to such preferences.
Experience of adult C. glomerata with different P. brassicae-infested cabbage varieties or nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus L.) led to preferences for the experienced plant-host complex in most cases (‘preference learning at plant level’). No effect of rearing plant (early adult learning) on plant preference was found.
In contrast to the generalist C. glomerata, females of the specialist C. rubecula did not show preference learning at the herbivore level. At the plant level, experience with different P. rapae-infested cabbage varieties in no case resulted in a difference in preference between treatments. The results support the hypothesis that learning plays a more important role in searching in generalists than in specialist parasitoids. The behaviour of the generalist C. glomerata was more easily changed by experience than that of the specialist C. rubecula.