Herbivore dynamics and community structure are influenced both by plant quality and the actions of natural enemies. A factorial experiment manipulating both higher and lower trophic levels was designed to explore the determinants of colony growth of the aphid Aphis jacobaeae, a specialist herbivore on ragwort Senecio jacobaea. Potential plant quality was manipulated by regular addition of NPK-fertiliser and predator pressure was reduced by interception traps; the experiment was carried out at two sites. The size and persistence of aphid colonies were measured. Fertiliser addition affected plant growth in only one site, but never had a measurable effect on aphid colony growth. In both habitats the action of insect predators dominated, imposing strong and negative effects on aphid colony performance. Ants were left unmanipulated in both sites and their performance on the aphid colonies did not significantly differ between sites or between treatments. Our results suggest that, at least for aphid herbivores on S. jacobaea, the action of generalist insect predators appears to be the dominant factor affecting colony performance and can under certain conditions even improve plant productivity.