Abstract The effects of transgenic Bt cotton on the overwintering generation of the cotton bollworm, Helicoverpa armigera (Hübner) (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae), are unknown. We hypothesized that a Bt cotton diet may adversely affect fitness of this generation and examined fresh weight, lipids, glycogens, low-molecular-weight sugars and SCPs (supercooling points) of pupae, as well as survival of larvae, diapausing pupae and adult emergence in comparison with controls. Field and laboratory experiments showed that larvae fed on Bt cotton had a decreased pupation rate, and fewer entered diapause and emerged as adults compared with larvae fed non-Bt cotton. Furthermore, larvae fed Bt cotton had reduced pupal weight, glycogen content and trehalose levels both in diapausing and in non-diapausing pupae, and only diapausing pupae had an increased SCP compared to controls. The SCPs of diapausing pupae reared on Bt cotton were significantly higher than those reared on non-Bt cotton. The trehalose levels of diapausing pupae reared on Bt cotton were significantly lower than those of larvae reared on non-Bt cotton. Thus, these results suggest that a Bt cotton diet weakens the preparedness of cotton bollworm for overwintering and reduces survival of the overwintering generation, which will in turn reduce the density of the first generation in the following year. Effects of transgenic Bt cotton on the overwintering generation of cotton bollworm appear to have significantly contributed to the suppression of cotton bollworm observed throughout northern China in the past decade.