Bees on a dairy farm
How effective is red clover as a nectar source for bees and what [subspecies] of honey bee is the most effective at collecting red clover nectar? I guess I am looking for the one with the longest proboscis to maximize nectar recovery.
I have to move the majority of my colonies off my property and a dairy farmer 15 minutes away has offered to let me put my bees on his land. At present he has 30 acres of new fields 0 – 1 year old of 30% red clover and balance timothy, along with some older hay fields. He is also planning to try a new type of hardy alfalfa that is supposed to overwinter well.
Also I can place as many colonies as I am comfortable with on his land. All it will cost me is a few bottles of honey in the fall. Sounds like a fair trade to me. Also, there are some creeks and such as the land is not flat so it is predominantly deciduous tree-lined fields.
Animal forage is a subject I haven’t dealt with in a long time, but the best piece of news I see here for the honey bees is the “predominantly deciduous tree-lined fields.” I don’t know any of the particulars about this farm or this farmer, but I will make some generalizations.
I’m assuming since the farmer told you he is growing red clover, it really is red clover (Trifolium pratense) as opposed to crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum). Red clover is notoriously poor bee forage due to the long corolla and I don’t know of any A. mellifera subspecies that does particularly well with it (Journal of Economic Entomology 95: 22-27).
Nevertheless, my real concern here is that this is a dairy farm. Both the red clover and the alfalfa will probably be cut pre-bloom for hay. There are various reasons for this, but the farmer wants to cut when the plants provide maximum nutritional value for the livestock—usually around bloom-time or just before it. Sometimes the first cut is used for hay and then the plants are allowed to grow for use as pasture. If they bloom again while being grazed, it amounts to pretty much the same thing for the bees because the cows will scarf those blooms down with glee.
On the other hand, sometimes a farmer will allow his crop to flower in the fall so that he gets a seed crop from it. If he does that, you’re in luck. But if the crop is grown from some genetically-engineered, patent-protected, thou-shalt-not-collect-your-own-seed kind of product, don’t count on it. If he can’t legally collect the seed (and this is Canada folks, the home of canola farmer Percy Schmeiser) there is really no point in letting it flower.
That all sounds negative, but if the bees are causing a problem where they are, the farm will be a better place for them. The rural environment will offer plenty of foraging opportunities, even if the clover and alfalfa don’t work out.