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.

Rusty

Trifolium pratense (red clover). Flickr photo by Nordique
Trifolium pratense (red clover). Flickr photo by Nordique

Trifolium incarnatum (crimson clover). Flickr photo by Kyle Kruchuk
Trifolium incarnatum (crimson clover). Flickr photo by Kyle Kruchuk

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Comments

Courtney Kerns
Reply

Thanks for the info! I just ordered a little bit for a trial planting. I’ve never even seen it growing anywhere before; I hope with inoculation it will grow and flower from a spring sowing up here in northern MN. I’m interested in helping native pollinators and am anxious to see what it attracts.

Nolan Kennedy
Reply

I have planted several plots of crimson clover and wow do the honeybees love it. It’s great for bees, great to deliver nitrogen in the ground, and great forage for our grass-fed cattle.

Teri
Reply

Crimson clover is a great plant. Reseeds readily if left to mature. Lovely, feathery flower head even holds up in a spring bouquet!

Peg Goter
Reply

I was disappointed at first when it seemed my bees were ignoring my crimson clover (planted as soil-improving cover crop). Eventually they began to visit in impressive numbers. I think the flowers must reach a certain stage/maturity before they warrant honeybee visitation. I noticed the same with Autumn Joy Sedum and with lavender blossoms.

I plan to plant a lot more crimson clover this spring. Great plant…agreed!

Tim Leonard
Reply

Rusty,
Long before I kept bees, back when I lived in south Georgia a friend told me to plant crimson clover as a cover crop under my corn. I would always have a great crop because the clover kept the weeds out and the honey bees in. I had forgotten all about this until your post brought it back to mind. I will see how this works this spring in the mountains of North Carolina.
I always use untreated corn seed.
Tim

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

The clover fixes nitrogen as well, so the corn can really take off.

Terry
Reply

My neighbor is a cattle farmer and plants a 20-acre pasture each spring with crimson clover directly across the road from my bee yard. Boy, do my bees love it! The first time I saw the pollen my bees were bringing in, it reminded me of tobacco gum. It is very dark – almost charcoal color.

Rusty
Reply

Terry,

That’s interesting. I’m always curious about the color of pollen; I would have never guessed dark grey for crimson clover, or any clover.

phil gladding
Reply

Rusty, I have a neighbor who is establishing a large vineyard. He has ask me if I would be interested in putting some bee colonies in it. Can you tell me if grapes vines are of benefit to honey bees. I just never thought about it before. Thanks a lot. Phil

Rusty
Reply

Phil,

The way I understand it is that grapes are wind/gravity pollinated and therefore have no need to produce attractive nectar, although the amount of nectar varies with the variety. I have grape vines and I’ve never seen any pollinators on them even though they are pesticide-free. I’ve heard other people say they get occasional honey bees on their grapes, not not large numbers. Again, I think it depends on the variety, but I don’t think it’s something you can count on.

John
Reply

Rusty,
I have some old (2 yrs ?) honey filled super frames. Can I use them to spring feed my over-wintering hive? How about package bees?
Thanks,
John

Rusty
Reply

John,

Yes, that is exactly what I do. I’ve used frames of honey 3 and 4 years old to start packages and to spring feed overwintered hives. Nothing grows a new crop of bees like real honey. To me, sugar is a last resort; I use honey whenever I can.

Joy
Reply

I wish I could upload a photo of our Crimson Clover cover crop! I planted it last fall and just in the past couple of weeks has it come into it’s own. I just broadcast sowed it so it is now a sea of beautiful red & green…and FULL of honey bees, bumbley-bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and other guests. I’ll have to cut it soon enough but in the mean time, I’ve got pollinators galore, food for my hives, something beautiful to look at, and “look, ma! NO WEEDS!” to speak of in that planting space.

mbee
Reply

Rusty, how are you storing frames of honey that you then use in “three or four years?” For that matter, how are you storing frames of honey that you want to use in a month or so? Any difference?

Rusty
Reply

mbee,

No difference. I wrap frame tightly in plastic wrap, freeze overnight, store in the shed.

mbee
Reply

Thanks, Rusty! I’ve been keeping mine in the freezer, and it would be nice to start putting some actual food in there instead.

Rusty
Reply

mbee,

I know! I have a post I started about three years ago and never finished about all the bee-related items in my freezer. It is awesome. Very little human food.

Ron
Reply

I have been growing crimson clover for the past five or more years and I grow it only for my bees. The first year I planted it I noticed, once my crimson flowered, that my entire field was buzzing and nearly every crimson flower had a bee on it. My honey production has tripled. I’m getting about 50 lbs of honey per hive, and with my small four-hive apiary that means plenty of honey.

Oh, by the way, my honey has a distinct red hue to it with moisture content under 12% and EVERYONE says it is the best they have ever tasted, even better than when I planted only white dutch, ladino, or sweet clover. I grow about ten to fifteen acres each year. I add reseeding and it looks like a beautiful sea of crimson red flowers. My wife wants it in some of her flower gardens just for color while it provides cover. We watch plenty of deer and turkey graze thru it as well.

Rusty
Reply

Ron,

That sounds beautiful. I just love the color of it—so rich.

Mark
Reply

Rusty,

I have been reading some very interesting facts about crimson clover as I have been a beekeeper for over 40 years. I was aware of crimson clover as a good forage source for honeybees, but now I know even more about it. I had a failing queen last season, so I have to start over this season. Thanks for the helpful information.

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