Monday morning myth: bees don’t like crimson clover
This is a case of mistaken identity—I think—but it’s pervasive. I hear this at least once every year, and just recently one of the bee journals printed this statement, “Red clover (crimson clover) is generally considered poor bee forage.” The problem with that sentence is that the author couldn’t decide if he meant red clover (Trifolium pratense) or crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum). Furthermore, he didn’t say which bees. Did he mean honey bees or some other bees? No wonder people are confused.
Red clover and crimson clover don’t even begin to look alike. And it’s not just their color—the shapes of the plants, especially the flowers, are entirely different. But if you want it to hinge on color, red clover flowers don’t come close to being crimson, whereas crimson clover flowers are strikingly, unmistakably blood-like. In fact, the species name of crimson clover, incarnatum, means “blood red.”
It’s actually red clover that isn’t a great honey bee plant. This is due to the deep flowers which the honey bee has trouble reaching into. There are other bees—those with longer tongues—that have no trouble dipping into red clover. So while honey bees may not prefer red clover, other bees think it’s the cat’s meow.
And contrary to rumor, crimson clover is an excellent honey bee plant and will often produce a crop of good quality honey. While the entire inflorescence is more elongated in crimson clover, each individual flower is shorter—just the right size for a honey bee tongue.