Seasonal environments present fundamental physiological challenges to a wide range of insects. Many temperate insects surmount the exigencies of winter by undergoing photoperiodic diapause, in which photoperiod provides a token cue that initiates an alternative developmental programme leading to dormancy. Pre-diapause is a crucial preparatory phase of this process, preceding developmental arrest. However, the regulatory and physiological mechanisms of diapause preparation are largely unknown. Using high-throughput gene expression profiling in the Asian tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus, we reveal major shifts in endocrine signalling, cell proliferation, metabolism, energy production and cellular structure across pre-diapause development. While some hallmarks of diapause, such as insulin signalling and stress response, were not important at the transcriptional level, two genes, Pepck and PCNA, appear to show diapause-induced transcriptional changes across insect taxa. These processes demonstrate physiological commonalities between Ae. albopictus pre-diapause and diapause strategies across insects, and support the idea of a genetic 'toolkit' for diapause. Observations of gene expression trends from a comparative developmental perspective suggest that individual physiological processes are delayed against a background of a fixed morphological ontogeny. Our results demonstrate how deep sequencing can provide new insights into elusive molecular bases of complex ecological adaptations.