bee forage

Bees on a dairy farm

Hey Rusty,

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.


Moo-ve over for bees. Flickr photo by cheeseslave.

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  • Nice post Rusty. Lots of useful information. About one km away is the highway with significant amounts of goldenrod; right now there is a large amount of wild cherry and pussy willow just finished up.

    The reason I like keeping the bees in my yard is in the opposite direction of the neighbour with the flyby problem is a large number of big box stores/the hospital that have large grass areas that I have been guerilla seeding with white dutch clover. That will continue to flower over the summer as it is cut several times during the summer. In the upcoming years, as the trees in my yard mature, the bees will be forced to fly higher even though they are currently 12 – 15 feet above any neighbour’s property.

    Oh the webs we weave.

  • I’m moving my hives too.

    I have to move all my hives out of my urban backyard in a couple weeks. I’ve been told the organic farm I’m moving them to has plenty of forage for the bees, but it doesn’t look half as good as my urban location that has deciduous trees growing everywhere, plus a large variety of domestic and wild flowers. The organic farm is surrounded by spruce trees. Not so great. I also love the flavour of the honey our bees produced last year. That could all change with the move.

    One of the perils of urban beekeeping: Not every neighbour appreciates bees swarming into their backyard.

  • Phillip –

    You might mention to your organic farmer friends that buckwheat makes an excellent “summer fallow” for ground that has been in early stuff (lettuce, radishes, turnips, greens) and needs enriched for a fall planting. Buckwheat nitrifies soil, tho not as well as clovers do, smothers weeds such as Canada thistle, looks beautiful blooming, and bees love it. It can be sown any time in warm weather, and matures in weeks, so I’m thinking it might cover the nectar dearth after the clover and before the goldenrod.

    My garden has Ladino clover “driveways” between the plots, but any unused plot gets buckwheat sown broadcast.
    I am pleased as punch to have had 7 urban hives join my sustainable farm this spring. Best of luck to you and your bees’ new hosts!