Cultivate Backyard Biodiversity

Many people view the built environment and the natural world as two separate entities, but they coexist—all urban and developed areas are also a part of their ecosystems! Making a few simple enhancements around our homes and neighborhoods can greatly increase an urban area’s potential to serve as excellent habitat, especially for pollinators and birds.

Of course, basic habitat needs include food, water, and shelter. Let’s go over a few ideas for how to meet these needs, no matter how big or small your space.

Queen butterflies on Conoclinium dissectum


This can mean many things, depending on who you are interested in attracting to your garden. Plants with seeds that attract songbirds include Baileya multiradiata (Desert Marigold) and Tithonia diversifolia (Mexican Sunflower). A food powerhouse for seed-eating birds as well as nectar-eating bees and butterflies is Aloysia gratissima (Bee Brush), and the flowers have a wonderful vanilla scent for humans in your garden as well!

Pipevine swallowtail on Tithonia diversifolia

Native bees will benefit from having plants that they are naturally adapted for, such as the beautiful Solanum houstonii (Mala Mujer) and Senna covesii (Coves’ Cassia) which utilize buzz pollination, and the impressive Callaeum macropterum (Yellow Orchid Vine) that attracts specialized oil-collecting bees.

Two wonderful shrubs with unique flowers that attract clouds of butterflies are Amorpha fruticosa (Indigo Bush) and Cephalanthus occidentalis (Button Bush).

All of these plants – and many more! – will be at our Annual Plant Sale, October 15th & 16th (Annual Desert Museum Plant Sale). Our nurseries are getting full!


Access to water is crucial for any habitat. Shallow pools that have gently sloping sides ensure safe access for all the critters. Just be sure the water is either moving or regularly replaced so it does not create a breeding spot for mosquitos. Since it takes about a week for mosquito eggs to mature into adults, changing the water every five days should be sufficient. Water with debris or feces in it can also spread disease to birds bathing in it, so be sure to switch out the water if it’s looking dirty!


Types of shelter can vary as much as food sources, so including a variety will ensure habitat for a diversity of pollinators and birds. In some cases, this just means leaving things alone! Overly enthusiastic yard cleaning can eliminate sheltering spots for native creatures. Many solitary bees like bare or undisturbed soil for building nests; others (like bumblebees) prefer small rock, brush, or leaf piles. Have a little bit of both! Other bees like to deposit their larva in the dried stems of last season’s growth, like Yucca inflorescence stems, or in dead wood. A few dead stems and branches left around the yard can make a huge difference for our native pollinators.

Providing host plants is important for butterfly and moth development. Host plants give food and shelter to young caterpillars once they emerge, and some butterflies and moths lay eggs on very specific plants. Well-known examples of this are Asclepias (milkweed) species for monarch butterflies and Aristolochia (pipevine) species for swallowtails (at our Plant Sale we will be offering three types of milkweed and two types of pipevine!)

A great way to ensure safe shelter for birds is to keep domestic cats indoors or on a leash. Free-ranging cats kill approximately 2.4 billion birds in the U.S. annually, the largest human-caused threat to native birds. It is best for the safety of cats and ecosystems that they never be allowed to free-roam.

Backyard Biodiversity

Every sort of outdoor space is shared with our non-human neighbors. With a little thought and planning, you can create a safe and enriching habitat. If you have any questions about creating wildlife habitat around your home or neighborhood, come on down to the Desert Museum Annual Plant Sale and talk to our Horticulturists!

Written by Cale Carthey, Botany Staff

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