Many species of deciduous trees display striking colour changes in autumn. Here, we present a functional hypothesis: bright autumn coloration serves as an honest signal of defensive commitment against autumn colonizing insect pests. According to this hypothesis, individuals within a signalling species show variation in the expression of autumn coloration, with defensively committed trees producing a more intense display. Insects are expected to be averse to the brightest tree individuals and, hence, preferentially colonize the least defensive hosts. We predicted that tree species suffering greater insect damage would, on average, invest more in autumn–colour signalling than less troubled species. Here, we show that autumn coloration is stronger in species facing a high diversity of damaging specialist aphids. Aphids are likely to be an important group of signal receivers because they are choosy, damaging and use colour cues in host selection. In the light of further aspects of insect and tree biology, these results support the notion that bright autumn colours are expensive handicap signals revealing the defensive commitment of individual trees to autumn colonizing insect pests.