San Diego is now a Bee City USA in an effort to protect the crucial pollinators

A bee enjoys the pollen in a white rose in La Jolla.
(Noel Fishman)

In an initiative spearheaded by Councilman Joe LaCava of La Jolla, the city is committing to more gardens and fewer pesticides.


San Diego may soon have more rooftop green spaces and community gardens as part of a new campaign aiming to boost the shrinking population of local bees, which serve as crucial pollinators needed to sustain agriculture and ecotourism.

The city is the largest in the nation to become a Bee City USA, a designation that requires creating new habitats for pollinators, adopting policies that prevent habitat destruction and revising pest management plans to use pesticides only as a last resort.

“Bee City USA is not just a designation, it’s a commitment to biodiversity, pollinators and reducing harmful pesticide use,” said City Councilman Joe LaCava of La Jolla, who spearheaded efforts that culminated with council approval Aug. 1.

San Diego is among more than 150 cities that have made such commitments since an environmental conservation nonprofit called the Xerces Society created the Bee City program 10 years ago. The only other local city to have adopted the designation is Encinitas.

Having San Diego added to the list of places committed to conservation and community awareness is a major boon for bees, which have been declining in population worldwide, said ecology professor James Nieh of UC San Diego in La Jolla.

“This is a biodiversity hot spot containing a greater diversity of life than any other county in the continental U.S.,” Nieh said. He added that San Diego County also has the greatest number of plant and animal species threatened by extinction.

Nieh said the loss of pollinators can kill many native species of plants, allowing invasive species that increase wildfire risk to flourish at the city’s canyons and hillsides.

The recent loss of pollinators, which also include some bird species, threatens the region’s agriculture industry, city officials said. Bees are crucial pollinators for avocados, pomegranates, limes and many other local crops, they said.

The county’s avocado industry is estimated to generate more than $150 million in annual revenue, officials said.

Bees are crucial pollinators for avocados, San Diego officials say.
(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The decline in pollinators also threatens the region’s strong economy of ecotourism — people coming to San Diego to hike, watch birds or otherwise enjoy the natural environment.

“Without an abundance of pollinators, San Diego would not be the major avocado producer or beautiful tourist attraction for which it’s famous,” said Mary Jarvis, educational outreach coordinator for the San Diego Beekeeping Society.

An Ohio State University study in 2020 concluded that bees, which are responsible for pollinating about one-third of the nation’s food supply, had been declining in population at roughly 30 percent a year nationwide in recent years.

“Bee City USA is not just a designation, it’s a commitment to biodiversity, pollinators and reducing harmful pesticide use.”

— San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava

Because many of San Diego’s natural bee habitats and nesting sites have been destroyed by development in recent decades, the city could explore encouraging more “stepping stone” locations to help pollinators move around, said Laura Rost, a national Bee City coordinator.

Those could include “green” roofs, community gardens and trees on streets. City officials said such efforts could be particularly helpful in urban neighborhoods that lack parks and have fewer trees and foliage.

The program also requires cities to focus on educational outreach to the public to encourage people to make their yards more pollinator-friendly, including by avoiding use of pesticides, and to buy organic fruits and vegetables, which are grown without pesticides.

A bee gathers pollen from a calla lily.
(Don Wolochow)

Another crucial element is that designated bee cities must revise their pest management plans to integrate pollinators more aggressively and make pesticide use allowable only as a last resort.

But Rost said cities have a lot of leeway once those basic requirements are met.

“Every city looks different and special,” she said. “We want you to be as unique as your native plants. We really encourage our affiliates to think outside the box.”

The city must complete a report each February summarizing its bee-related accomplishments. It also must pay a $500 annual fee to Xerces for access to the organization’s consultants, opportunities to apply for federal grants and promotional materials for public outreach.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria expressed support for the city’s new designation, saying it builds on his pledge in 2021 to help preserve and boost habitats for monarch butterflies, another crucial but threatened pollinator.

The local chapter of the Audubon Society also praised the move, contending the designation will give the pollinators a fighting chance against the “huge biodiversity crisis on our hands,” said Andrew Meyer, the chapter’s conservation director.

Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert said she’s grateful to LaCava’s staff for pursuing the designation.

“It’s nice to have a different view of bees and not necessarily just be afraid and to become more aware of the work they’re doing in our world,” she said.

Other large cities that have joined the Bee City program include San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore. Other designated cities in California include Santa Barbara and Redding.

Xerces says 1,625 pollinator habitat projects totaling 12,900 acres have been completed since the program was launched.

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.