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The role of competition in structuring communities of herbivorous insects is still debated. Despite this, few studies have simultaneously investigated the strength of various forms of competition and their effect on community composition. In this study, we examine the extent to which different types of competition will affect the presence and abundance of individual leaf miner species in local communities on oak trees Quercus robur. We first use a laboratory experiment to quantify the strength of intra- and interspecific competition. We then conduct a large-scale field experiment to determine whether competition occurring in one year extends to the next. Finally, we use observational field data to examine the extent to which mechanisms of competition uncovered in the two experiments actually reflect into patterns of co-occurrence in nature. In our experiment, we found direct competition at the leaf-level to be stronger among conspecific than among heterospecific individuals. Indirect competition among conspecifics lowered the survival and weight of larvae of T. ekebladella, both at the branch and the tree-level. In contrast, indirect competition among heterospecifics was only detected in one out of three species pairs examined. In the field experiment, the presence of a given moth species in one year affected the relative abundance of leaf miner species in the next year. Nevertheless, patterns of competition observed in these experiments did not translate into repulsion among free-ranging leaf miners: conspecific larvae of four leaf-mining species were aggregated on the same trees, shoots and leaves. In contrast, heterospecific larvae were only aggregated at the tree-level. We propose that despite the fact that leaf miners do compete and that such effects extend through time, the incidence and strength of competition is relatively small at realistic densities. Hence, competition will likely be of minor importance in shaping the distribution of leaf miners in a natural setting.