Numerous insect species engage in seasonal, trans-latitudinal migration, in response to varying resource availability, climatic conditions and associated opportunities, to maximize fitness and reproductive success. For certain species, the interaction between migrant adults and individual host plants is well-studied under laboratory conditions, but scant knowledge exists on the nutritional ecology of wild (i.e., field-caught) moths. During 2017–2018, we trapped adults of the cotton bollworm Helicoverpa armigera (Hübner) along its migration pathway in northeastern China and used pollen grain analysis to assess its visitation of particular host plants. Next, we assessed life history effects of adult feeding on carbohydrate-rich resources, for migrant individuals. Pollen grain analysis revealed H. armigera visitation of 32 species from 28 families, with the largest carrier ratio for northward migrants. Evening primrose (Oenothera spp.) accounted for 48% of pollen grains, indicating a marked H. armigera feeding preference. Furthermore, feeding on sugar-rich foods benefited adult fitness, enhanced fecundity by 65–82% and increased flight distance by 38–55% as compared to unfed individuals. Also, the degree of enhancement of reproduction and flight performance following sugar feeding varied between different migratory cohorts. Our work combines (polymerase chain reaction [PCR]-assisted) palynology and laboratory-based life history trials to generate novel perspectives on the nutritional ecology of long-distance migratory insects. These findings can aid the development of population monitoring and ‘area-wide’ management strategies for a globally-important agricultural pest.