Semi-natural habitats in agricultural landscapes may support parasitoid populations that provide biocontrol services by suppressing populations of crop pests, but little is known about the spatial pattern and variability of these services at different levels of scale. Here we investigate the rarely studied phenomenon of early-season crop colonization by parasitoids and the relationship with the surrounding landscape. We assessed parasitism of whiteflies by placing whitefly infested cotton seedlings in remnant vegetation, arable land 25–125 m from remnant vegetation, and arable land further than 400 m from remnant vegetation. Twelve to twenty sentinel plants were exposed in a 25 × 25 m grid pattern in plots in each habitat. The experiment was conducted at 18 locations across two landscapes and repeated three times in a 2-week period in 2007 and 2008. Parasitism was observed during the first three days after the introduction of the whitefly infested seedlings and was in all cases caused by Encarsia spp. The mean number of parasitized whitefly per plant was 0.106 ± 0.025 and was highest on cotton plants placed in remnant vegetation, declining with increasing distance from remnant vegetation. A regression model with land use and meteorological variables received more statistical support from the data than models with only landscape and time period as factors. Parasitism levels were influenced by the proportion of remnant vegetation, grassland, as well as wind, temperature, dew point temperature and year. Early-season colonization of whitefly infested seedlings by parasitoids was erratic and characterized by large spatial (inter-plant and inter-plot) and temporal variation. Our study confirms that remnant vegetation function as reservoirs for parasitoids and that parasitoids can penetrate arable fields beyond 125 m within 3 days. However, variation in the occurrence of parasitism makes it difficult to predict parasitoid colonization at a specific place and time. Therefore, field-based scouting for pests and parasitoids is necessary, even in landscapes with a high biocontrol potential.