The close association of Anopheles gambiae Giles with humans and its females' ability to live on human blood alone suggest that females may ignore sources of sugar in favour of human blood as a source of energy. They have limited energy reserves at emergence, and at 27 degrees C both sexes generally die if they do not feed during night 1, 24-36 h after emergence. Food preferences during this critical period were tested by measuring responses to volatiles from honey and soiled socks, which served as surrogates for nectar-related and human-related volatiles in a wind-tunnel olfactometer. Both sexes responded more strongly to honey than to human volatiles, and given a choice, preferred honey over human volatiles. After 5 days of sugar access and maturation, males continued to prefer honey volatiles, whereas females changed behaviour, responding almost exclusively to human volatiles. Night 1 experiments also demonstrated that: (i). females previously having had sugar during the night of emergence responded more strongly to human volatiles; (ii). large-bodied mosquitoes of both sexes responded more strongly to honey than small-bodied ones; and (iii). females were equally responsive to honey in both early and late scotophase but were slightly more responsive to human volatiles in late scotophase. These results indicate that for a female's first meal, sugar is a viable option and is preferred when nectar-related stimuli are strong. This supports field evidence that sugar-feeding is a significant component of A. gambiae female behaviour.