Herbivorous insects are widespread and often serious constraints to crop production. The use of insect-resistant crops is a very effective way to control insect pests in agriculture, and the development of such crops can be greatly enhanced by knowledge on plant resistance mechanisms and the genes involved. Plants have evolved diverse ways to cope with insect attack that has resulted in natural variation for resistance towards herbivorous insects. Studying the molecular genetics and transcriptional background of this variation has facilitated the identification of resistance genes and processes that lead to resistance against insects. With the development of new technologies, molecular studies are not restricted to model plants anymore. This review addresses the need to exploit natural variation in resistance towards insects to increase our knowledge on resistance mechanisms and the genes involved. We will discuss how this knowledge can be exploited in breeding programmes to provide sustainable crop protection against insect pests. Additionally, we discuss the current status of genetic research on insect-resistance genes. We conclude that insect-resistance mechanisms are still unclear at the molecular level and that exploiting natural variation with novel technologies will contribute greatly to the development of insect-resistant crop varieties.