bee forage

Crimson clover is a honey bee favorite

Two common clovers look entirely different, but their names are confusing. Red clover is pink and crimson clover is blood-red.

In a case of mistaken identity, people often believe honey bees don’t like crimson clover. And the myth persists. I hear this multiple times every year, even from experienced beekeepers. And recently, one of the bee journals printed this odd 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.

The two clovers look very different

Red clover and crimson clover do not look alike. And it’s not just their color—the shapes of the plants, especially the flowers, are entirely different. But if you want to base your identification on color, red clover flowers don’t come close to being crimson. Instead, they are pink.

On the other hand, crimson clover flowers are strikingly, unmistakably blood-like. In fact, the species name, T. incarnatum, means “blood red.”

Red clover is not attractive to honey bees

It’s actually the red variety that is not a great honey bee plant. This is because it has long tubular flowers that honey bees have trouble reaching into. Other bees—those with longer tongues—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.

Contrary to rumor, crimson clover is an excellent honey plant that can produce a crop of quality honey. While the entire inflorescence is more elongated in this clover, each individual flower is shorter—just the right size for a honey bee tongue.

Honey Bee Suite

Red clover flowers are pink and round.
Trifolium pratense. Red clover flower heads are more-or-less pink and round. Flickr photo by Nordique.
Trifolium incarnatum. Crimson clover flower heads are elongated and deep blood red. Flickr photo by Kyle Kruchuk.
Trifolium incarnatum. Crimson clover flower heads are elongated and deep blood red. Flickr photo by Kyle Kruchuk.

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  • 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.

  • 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.

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

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

    • Terry, thank you for noting the pollen color of crimson clover. I have been wondering what my girls were bringing in when I saw the almost black pollen. Then I discovered the farmers around here have all planted crimson clover this year. My bees are really enjoying themselves.

  • 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

    • 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.

  • 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?

    • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

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

    • 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.

  • 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,

    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.

  • Thanks for this. I was Googling bee-related articles and found a chart about pollination syndromes that did NOT mention this color as attractive to bees.

    I was confused, because last year, for the first time ever, I planted crimson clover in my backyard and at bloom time my yard was FILLED with industrious little honey bees. It was a wonderful experience I hope to have again next summer!

    I appreciate your article and am off to look around your site a little more!

  • The neighboring lot (the house is currently empty) is full of crimson clover. It’s so pretty, I don’t mind that they only mow it about once a month. It looks more like a meadow than a lawn.
    I thought I’d see my bees all over that yard, but it appears like they have no interest in it.

  • Hi everyone! I am interested to find out if the crimson clover has the same edible/medicinal qualities as the red clover and white clover?

  • I planted a whole bunch of crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) in anticipation of our first honey bee nuc arrival. Maybe they just haven’t found it yet, but it’s been a week and the bumble bees are ALL over it, while the honey bees have appeared to like the white dutch clover (Trifolium Repens) which you may recognize as a common lawn weed. I will update and change this post if I see them start taking to it, but so far they wont touch the stuff =*(

    • Kristin,

      This is a common occurrence which I have explained many times. Give a child a choice between ice cream or a cracker, and chances are he will choose the ice cream and say no to the cracker. But if you now give him a choice between a cracker and some green beans, the cracker starts looking really good. The same goes for bee forage: whether they appear to “like” it or not has a lot to do with what else is in bloom at the same time.

  • Red clover is an excellent plant for bumble bees and it has the highest amount of amino acids and a high variety of amino acids making it outstanding for bees.

    • Steven,

      Agreed. Red clover (Trifolium pratense) is an excellent plant for many bee species, but honey bees are reluctant and much prefer crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum).

  • I used to bring in solitary bees prior to honey bees, build bee houses with reeds and just crammed what plants they like to pollinate. Solitary bees so many different types that most people never heard of seem to play a huge role in pollination that when I planted this year I decided to plant for them all the best I could not wanting to displace native pollinators to the area I am from. Even though maybe it wouldn’t be possible to do so I planned ahead planted crimson clover but also buckwheat which all the bees seem to thrive on, but with acres of corn growing I noticed some honey bees but mostly carpenter bees and bumblebees collecting pollen from the tassels in large numbers they seem to prefer them. Solitary bees even though are not apart of a apiary play a huge roll in pollination and by all of us providing food sources for them with acres of land that we can plant clover, wildflower or even trees that provide a food source everything we can do to provide forage for them to broaden their food source for diet may be a effort that requires little skill, some minor expense but huge benefits to the livelihood of not only your honey bees but all pollinators in your area.

  • Rusty,

    Having lived in Wine Country, Sonoma County, CA., when I saw honeybees on grapes, it was after the yellow jackets pierced the grape! Same goes for peaches.

  • I am not a beekeeper but I do have a small garden every year so I try to do everything possible to attract every and all pollinators. There don’t seem to be many honey bees “working” for my garden unfortunately. Butterflies, wasp, bumble bees & carpenter bees do the majority of the “heavy lifting” for me. I have heard the horror stories about honeybee hives dying for one reason or another and it just breaks my heart!

    I have recently started breeding rabbits to supplement my grocery bill but their grocery bill is almost as much as mine! I was researching which clover would be best for my bunnies & tolerant to GA heat. That’s how I found this! After reading multiple articles I was definitely going to go with a combination of red & white but now, I’m going to mix all 3! Clover can be dried for winter feed and since rabbits can’t have too many flowers because of how sweet they are, my main reason for planting WAS for the actual greens. Now I can plant to produce flowers for the bees & greens for my rabbits! I may as well, I collect rain water for the tree frogs because they are having a die-off due to a fungus, most likely caused by agricultural runoff of chemicals,fertilizers, etc but it’s exact causes are still not known. They eat mosquito larvae so my “in case of drought” water storage doesn’t pose a problem any more & I’m helping the tree frogs stay off the endangered species list. I have a veritable zoo of rescued dogs, cats, tortoise & turtles too. I have wanted to start a hive but think I will leave that up to you guys that know what you’re doing!!

    I would like to say thanks to all of you!! I only buy local honey & that wouldn’t be possible without you! Local honey bees have assisted me in helping a rescued dog that had been hit by a tractor trailer on a state highway around the corner from us. The Vet wasn’t sure if we would be able to save one of her hind legs but I was determined!! I knew honey was an excellent tool in the healing of burns so I bought a local keeper out & began applying honey bandages & BAM! A year later, the leg went from muscle, bone & tendons to completely healed! Now, 4 yes later, she even has a full coat of hair, like nothing had ever happened much less the thought of losing the leg! I also had a border collie rescue that ended up giving me 16 pups!! Well, the runt had BAD allergies, she’d sneeze what looked like green cottage cheese & the vet said either benedryl for life or I could try….locally sourced bee pollen added to her food!! Of course I went with the pollen & once again, went to my bee guy, I call him Buzz btw & after 3 yrs, BAM! No more allergies!! So trust me when I say those little buzzers have saved me thousands plus helped my fur babies beyond belief!! I figure it’s high time I return the favor & crimson clover is a small price to pay! Who knows, maybe my experiences with honey & pollen as well as rabbits & tree frogs can help someone else save their various animals after serious wounds &/or allergies (it also works for humans too!). Hopefully the big farmers out there will also be more encouraged to back off on the pesticides & fertilizers that are bad for not only bees & tree frogs but bats as well because bats are also having issues with a fungus from the same lakes & creeks that are killing the frogs! Don’t know if it’s the same fungus or if there’s anyone even consulting to see if it is! There’s a great deal to be said for companion planting! Now I have new companion plants to add! Who knows, maybe we’ll take up bee keeping next, after retirement when we might have the time to add something else on. I refuse to do anything if I can’t do it right aka old school because i’m too afraid of causing harm to do it halfway!

    Sorry this was so long but I just had to sing your praises, everyone could use a pat on the back sometimes!!

    So thanks again, my hat’s off to you all for providing so many wonderful things to our lives! 🙂

  • I planted crimson clover last October. It came up during the winter and then bloomed in the middle of April for about 3 weeks. About 2 or 3 weeks later it was all dead. There was not even any green vegetation. Is that normal for crimson. What should I do now? Bush Hog it and plow it and hope it reseeds itself this fall???? Would love some suggestions.

    • Earl,

      It’s been many years since I had crimson clover, but what you describe is what I remember. It bloomed, then died back. It reseeded for the next year, but I don’t recall a second flowering. Some plants behave differently, depending on the location, so perhaps contact your county extension office.

  • Slightly confused. I pulled down the PDF from your site, “Master plant list by region” which I thought was a list of useful/beefriendly plants by region. “Red clover” is listed in 3 regions, including mine (eastern TN), and “crimson clover” in 3 other regions. So is it plausible to grow “crimson clover” here, and is it worth it? I try to mow around the clumps of “red clover” scattered across one of the fields, and I do see large bees on the blooms. I see the honey bees more on the white clover patches.

    I have a slope that I’d rather not mow ever again. I sprinkled a little buckwheat on it last fall, but I think the weather was too hot and dry, and then abruptly transitioned to early winter temps, nothing sprouted. Will try it again this spring, but am looking for other options, too.

      • 1. What is the purpose of the Master Plant List by Region?

        2. If something is NOT listed in my region, e.g., “crimson” clover, will I be disappointed trying to grow it, even if my local Rural King happens to sell it?

        It appears from the pictures that the stuff I’ve always called “giant pink clover” is actually red clover; I may never have seen crimson clover close up. From the pictures, I expect I would be able to tell them apart in person. You have more than one post (or conversational thread) encouraging “crimson” clover because honey bees can’t really access the nectar in “red” clover. So I thought I would try planting some “crimson” clover, but I found the information in the plant list slightly contradictory and thus, confusing.

        • gap,

          The purpose of the plant list by region is to show what plants seem attractive to bees in those regions. Please note it says “bees” not “honey bees.” Honey bees may also be attracted to some of them, but that is not the point of the lists. For example, although honey bees are not attracted to red clover, other bees, especially bumbles, are very attracted to them.

          Red clover and crimson clover don’t look anything alike. Red clover has large pinkish flowers that are basically round like a ball. Crimson clover flowers are more elongated, almost coming to a point, and they are deep dark red.

          Also, the plants listed were sent in by readers from their various regions and compiled. Remember that which plants attract bees is largely influenced by what else is in bloom at the same time, so what may work for one person may not work for another.

  • I’m gonna buy a 50b bag of crimson from southern states: fairly cheap at $84. I don’t think it is inoculated, but wth. I live in the mid-Atlantic, specifically central virginia, so I am in a good southeastern climate. For what purpose you ask? Well, ground/lawn cover. I’m sure my neighbor’s pristine highly chemically treated manicured lawn may be taken back aghast, but honestly, what I’ve got in the backyard (other than 80% sandy loam), and a half of the front yard is a crazy mess of grass and assorted weeds. There is a patch of white or red clover that is a permanent fixture. Tbh, the subdivision I live in is typical suburbia. Maybe one day, soon, they’ll label me ‘king crimson clover’, along with a few other choice words. I’ll have to check the HOA rules and make sure I’m within the bylaws, but as long as the yard is trimmed/cut I’ll be ok, and won’t get one of those nasty letters in the mailbox. But I suppose I will have to wait for the flowers to germinate for them to drop more seeds naturally. Thanks for the info, it really has helped~!

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