The cryptic species Middle East-Asia Minor 1 (MEAM1), formerly referred to as ‘B biotype’, of the whitefly Bemisia tabaci complex entered China in the mid 1990s, and the Mediterranean (MED) cryptic species, formerly referred to as ‘Q biotype’, of the same whitefly complex entered China around 2003. Field surveys in China after 2003 indicate that in many regions MED has been replacing the earlier invader MEAM1. The factors underlying this displacement are unclear. We conducted laboratory experiments and field sampling to examine the effects of insecticide application on the competitive interactions between MEAM1 and MED. In the laboratory, on cotton, a plant showing similar levels of suitability to both whitefly species, MEAM1 displaced MED in five generations when initial populations of the two species were equal and no insecticide was applied. In contrast, MED displaced MEAM1 in seven and two generations, respectively, when 12.5 and 50.0 mg l−1 imidacloprid was applied to the plants via soil drench. Field sampling indicated that in a single season MED displaced MEAM1 on crops heavily sprayed with neonicotinoid insecticides but the relative abundance of the two species changed little on crops without insecticide spray. We also examined the effects of host plants on the competitive interactions between the two species in the laboratory. When cohorts with equal abundance of MEAM1 and MED were set up on different host plants, MEAM1 displaced MED on cabbage and tomato in five and seven generations, respectively, but MED displaced MEAM1 on pepper in two generations. As field populations of MED have lower susceptibility than those of MEAM1 to nearly all commonly used insecticides including imidacloprid, insecticide application seems to have played a major role in shifting the species competitive interaction effects in favour of MED in the field across China. Host plants may also shape competition between the two species depending on the relative levels of plant suitability.