Recent global change has had a substantial influence on the distribution of organisms, and many species are currently expanding their ranges. To evaluate the underlying processes, long-term data with good geographic resolution are essential. One important but generally overlooked data source is offered by the taxon-specific national catalogues of first provincial records that are kept in many countries. Here, we use such data to quantify trait-based influences on range expansion in Swedish butterflies and moths between 1973 and 2010. Of 282 species meeting pre-defined quality criteria, 170 expanded their northern range margin, with a mean expansion rate of 2.7 km per year. The analyses demonstrate that habitat and diet generalists, forest species and species active during warm conditions have expanded their ranges more rapidly than other species. Notably, range expansion in diet specialists was positively related to a nitrogen-favoured larval diet, an effect not found among oligo- or polyphagous species. In contrast to the general view, this shows that specialist species can undergo rapid range expansion. We suggest that increased areas of nitrogen-rich habitat, and increased availability of a nitrogen-favoured diet, are among the most important drivers of range expansions, potentially having far-reaching consequences for a wide variety of organisms.