Theory predicts the bottom–up coupling of resource and consumer densities, and epidemiological models make the same prediction for host–parasite interactions. Empirical evidence that spatial variation in local host density drives parasite population density remains scarce, however. We test the coupling of consumer (parasite) and resource (host) populations using data from 310 populations of metazoan parasites infecting invertebrates and fish in New Zealand lakes, spanning a range of transmission modes. Both parasite density (no. parasites per m2) and intensity of infection (no. parasites per infected hosts) were quantified for each parasite population, and related to host density, spatial variability in host density and transmission mode (egg ingestion, contact transmission or trophic transmission). The results show that dense and temporally stable host populations are exploited by denser and more stable parasite populations. For parasites with multi-host cycles, density of the ‘source’ host did not matter: only density of the current host affected parasite density at a given life stage. For contact-transmitted parasites, intensity of infection decreased with increasing host density. Our results support the strong bottom–up coupling of consumer and resource densities, but also suggest that intraspecific competition among parasites may be weaker when hosts are abundant: high host density promotes greater parasite population density, but also reduces the number of conspecific parasites per individual host.