Pollinator Health

We need pollinators…and they need us!

In the United States, pollinators like bees, butterflies, and birds are responsible for 75 percent of our food supply. That is one of every three bites of food we eat! Pollinators are critical to our food supply and the plant diversity we find in nature, yet across the nation, they are disappearing.  

This is the case for bees – like the hundreds of species of native bees that pollinate so many of our food crops – as well as iconic species like the monarch butterfly. The good news is, we can help! Creating habitat for pollinators in your yard or school garden is one important action you can take to help them thrive.

Below is some information about our Milkweed for Monarchs program, as well as collaborative work we are involved with to support pollinator health.  

San Diego Pollinator Alliance

The RCD is a founding member of the San Diego Pollinator Alliance (SDPA), a group of organizations and agencies working together to protect pollinators in San Diego County. Other members include Butterfly Farms, Sky Mountain Permaculture, the California Native Plant Society – San Diego Chapter, US Fish & Wildlife Partners for Fish & Wildlife Program, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Earth Discovery Institute, River Partners, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, and the San Diego Natural History Museum.  The SDPA aims to increase native pollinator habitat and awareness about pollinator-friendly practices throughout San Diego County through outreach, education, and on-the-ground programs.

Creating Pollinator Habitat

The San Diego Pollinator Alliance has developed a series of native demonstration pollinator gardens across the county to give residents ideas on how to create pollinator habitat at home. Demonstration pollinator habitats have been planted a Sike’s Adobe within the San Dieguito River Park and the Los Jilgueros Preserve in Fallbrook, as well as at Lafayette Elementary and Scripps Ranch High School. We will soon be helping to install a pollinator garden at Chula Vista High School and within an HOA in San Marcos.

The SDPA hosts a thriving demonstration pollinator habitat at the San Diego County Fair called the Pollinator Pathway.  Built in 2015, it is now a permanent feature within the Fair’s Infield Farm. The Pollinator Pathway is open every day of the Fair (annually during June and early July). If you are visiting the Fair, stop by and learn about low water use, California native plants that provide essential habitat for our hardworking pollinators. The exhibit also features a butterfly free-flight house and a honey bee display. We are always open to hearing from schools or other sites that would like to host a demonstration habitat – please get in touch if you would like to get involved!

Other pollinator gardens to check out around San Diego County include:

  • A native plant garden at the edge of the Zoro Garden in Balboa Park
  • The pollinator garden at Lindo Lake Park in Lakeside
  • The pollinator garden at Living Coast Discovery Center in Chula Vista

Do you want to attract beneficial pollinators like bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds into your garden? Visit a garden for inspiration, but in the meantime here are some tips:

  • Include host plants, like native milkweed (the monarch’s host plant)
  • Grow flowering plants to provide nectar. Select plants that bloom at different times of the year to provide a continuous nectar source.
  • Create nesting habitat for native bees – leave some bare dirt patches for ground nesting bees or purchase an insect hotel.
  • Avoid pesticides!
  • Consider adding a water source.

Pollinator Garden Workshop series: In February and March, the SDPA hosted a series of three virtual workshops on creating pollinator gardens in back yards, school gardens, churches, or any other space you have access to. Several guest speakers / Pollinator Alliance members kindly contributed, including Dr Michael Wall of the San Diego Natural History Museum, Annika Nabors of the UC Cooperative Extension, Mary Duffy from Earth Discovery Institute, and Alden Hough from Sky Mountain Permaculture. Videos of each of the three workshops can be found here

Native Milkweed 

Milkweed is the host plant for the declining monarch butterfly. To help conserve this iconic species, we suggest including milkweed in any pollinator habitat planting, and we strongly encourage planting native milkweed instead of tropical or other non-native milkweeds. By native, we mean milkweeds that are found in our region – and San Diego County has several types of native milkweed. The most common, and commonly available, is Narrowleaf Milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), though a few others can sometimes be found at some nurseries as well (such as Wooly Pod Milkweed (A. eriocarpa) and California Milkweed (A. californica)).

These milkweeds are found in other parts of California too, and the vast majority of the native milkweeds currently commercially available in San Diego originate from seed collected in central or northern CA. We believe that milkweed from our region will be more successful in plantings because it is better adapted to San Diego’s unique climate. The SDPA is working to establish a San Diego seed source of native milkweed that can be used in pollinator habitat projects of all scales – from the home garden to restoration projects.

This project began in fall of 2019, with Narrowleaf Milkweed seed collected from six sites across San Diego County. That seed was planted in late 2019 / early 2020 at four different sites. In year 2, we added Wooly Pod milkweed to the project and seeds for this and Narrowleaf Milkweed were collected from multiple sites in fall of 2020. Those seeds are being grown out now to develop plants, cuttings, and seeds that will be available to the public. Our growing partners include Butterfly Farms/Luca Michaela Nursery, Earth Discovery Institute, Moosa Creek Nursery, Native West Nursery, Anderson Seed Co, S&S Seeds, and the Endangered Habitats Conservancy. A limited number of the San Diego Milkweed will be available for purchase from spring 2021 onwards, with more in subsequent years.

We are always looking for more seed to contribute to this project! If you have naturally occurring milkweed (i.e. not planted as a part of any past restoration project) on your property or lands you manage, we would be grateful for a donation of seeds.

Please contact the RCD with any questions or to donate seed! 

Milkweed for Monarchs

The RCD’s Milkweed for Monarchs program is all about creating more habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinators by planting milkweed. Planting milkweed provides essential habitat for Monarchs, and also provides the opportunity to observe the life cycle of these fascinating insects.

Milkweed is the host plant for monarchs. Female butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed leaves, and it is the sole food source of monarch caterpillars. The number of monarch butterflies counted at overwintering sites in California and Mexico has decreased by about 95% since the 1980s! We also are experiencing a major loss of milkweed plants in monarchs’ spring and summer breeding areas, due to factors like urban and agricultural development and the use of herbicides in farming, pastures, and along roadways.  

By planting butterfly host plants such as milkweeds and a diverse array of flowering plants in school gardens, community gardens, and front and back yards, we create new habitat for Monarch butterflies and other pollinators.  

The RCD has narrowleaf milkweed seeds to share with schools and residents in San Diego County who want to create pollinator habitat. We can also sometimes offer narrowleaf milkweed plants to schools, as well as other information and resources to assist with pollinator gardens.   

Sign up to our Pollinator Alliance newsletter to receive updates and about availability of San Diego Native Milkweed, as well as other pollinator-related resources and information.

Pollinator Health Resources

Monarch and pollinator conservation:  

  • Butterfly Farms: education and conservation organization and nursery all on one site. Come visit their butterfly free flight house and buy pollinator plants for your garden.  
  • Monarch Joint Venture: a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses, and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration.  
  • Monarch Watch: a wealth of information about monarchs – creating habitat, citizen science, migration, biology, and more. 
  • The Xerces Society: an organization dedicated to the protection of wildlife through supporting invertebrates.  They offer information and resources about issues affecting pollinators and what you can do to help these vital insects, and their website has a section dedicated to conserving the Western Monarch.

Native plant resources

  • California Native Plant Society – San Diego Chapter: organization dedicated to increasing understanding, appreciation and conservation of California’s fascinating variety of native plants in their natural environment and in horticultural settings. “Gardening with Natives” and “How-To Brochures” links on their website have lots of info on native plants and butterflies.  
  • Native West Nursery: a wholesale nursery specializing in growing California native plants. The nursery holds public plant sales four times per year.
  • Xerces Society – California Pollinator Plants: this guide from the Xerces Society includes information about the milkweeds native to California.
  • CalScape: is a website where you can put in your address and learn about native plants that will do well in your area.

Where to buy native plants:  

Milkweed seed sowing and plant care instructions:

Creating pollinator habitat:

  • Establishing Pollinator Meadows from Seed: a guide from the Xerces Society on how to create your own pollinator meadow.
  • Gardening for Monarchs fact sheet: tips from Monarch Joint Venture on attracting monarchs (and other pollinators) to your yard.
  • Monarch Waystations: a certification for gardens that provide the resources that monarchs (and other pollinators) need. By registering as a Monarch Waystation, you join a national network of pollinator habitats.
  • Pollinator Toolkit: a guide for all you need to know to create pollinator habitat, created by the San Diego Pollinator Alliance.  

Citizen science programs:

  • Journey North: a country-wide monarch monitoring program. Report your monarch sightings and check out their interactive map of sightings so far this year!  
  • Xerces Society: offers two citizen science opportunities. Help collect data to monitor the status of overwintering monarchs along the California coast by participating in the West Monarch Count that takes place over Thanksgiving and the New Year. You can also contribute to efforts to better understand the breeding habitat of monarchs by entering your monarch and milkweed sightings through the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper.
  • Monarch Citizen Science programs: an overview of monarch citizen science contributions and programs across the United States, including information on how to get involved.  (link to document title Monarch citizen science overview)
  • RCD Milkweed for Monarchs iNaturalist project: join this project and contribute observations of monarchs in your gardens. 


Our partners at Earth Discovery Institute created thus lovely video about native milkweed

Monarch Butterfly Tag and Release Event

Monarch Butterfly “Tag-and-Release” Event: North County students and elected officials enjoy a chance to get up close with Monarch Butterflies at this fun and informative event hosted by Butterfly Farms, the RCD, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.