bee forage

Sainfoin: a colorful, nectar-rich honey bee forage plant

Sainfoin flowers are candy-striped and loaded with nectar and high-quality pollen. Pixabay photo.

Once relegated to “has-been” status as animal forage, sainfoin is experiencing a comeback as a hay and silage plant as well as a cover crop.

Inside: The stunning sainfoin flower makes light and delicious honey. But because it crystalizes within a couple of months, it’s a perfect candidate for creamed honey.

A forage crop with cool candy-striped flowers

Once relegated to “has-been” status as animal forage, sainfoin is experiencing a comeback as a hay, pasture, and silage plant, as well as a cover crop. And if you are looking for beauty, nothing beats sainfoin with its candy-striped pink petals and graceful inflorescence.

Horses, cattle, sheep, and goats are all fond of sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia). Unlike other leguminous forage such as clover and alfalfa, sainfoin does not cause bloat in ruminant animals. It is also an anthelmintic, meaning it reduces the incidence of parasitic worms.

The rebirth of an Old World crop

In full bloom, a sainfoin field shimmers in pink and buzzes with pollinators.
In full bloom, a sainfoin field shimmers in pink and buzzes with pollinators. Pixabay photo.

I remember sainfoin as a footnote in my animal forage classes back in the day. Although it had been popular in Europe, state extension offices were pushing alfalfa as being more winter hardy, more disease resistant—especially in damp or humid areas—and less expensive to sow.

Sainfoin’s recent rebirth results from two things. First, the consumption of sainfoin by ruminants decreases the amount of methane they release into the atmosphere. Second, sainfoin is a prolific nectar- and pollen-producing plant that provides both bee and animal forage.

Legumes make tasty honey

Many legumes are excellent honey producers. You need only to think of clover, sweet clover, alfalfa, acacia, black locust, and kudzu to realize the value of legumes to beekeepers. But the undervalued sainfoin beats them all for nectar production.

In Victory Gardens for Bees, Lori Weidenhammer reports sainfoin is ten times more likely to attract honey bees than Dutch clover. In 100 Plants to Feed the Bees, the Xerces Society claims sainfoin nectar can have a sugar concentration of up to 60%, and the plants can yield up to 350 pounds of honey per acre. The honey is yellow-white and popular with honey lovers.

This picky plant needs alkaline soils

Unfortunately, sainfoin is picky about both soil and water. According to the USDA, the plant requires well-drained alkaline soils with a pH of 6.8 to 8.0. It also needs at least 14 inches of rain per year. Its long taproot makes it drought tolerant, but because it is susceptible to root rot, it does not thrive in damp or overly-irrigated soil. It does well in calcium-based soils but has a low salt tolerance.

With proper soil, the plants resist most pests but do not compete well with weeds, so make sure you have a clean seedbed. Agronomists also recommend you innoculate your planting with a sainfoin-specific Rhizobium. Once established, a crop can last decades if well managed. However, it is expensive to grow because seed is costly and the crop should not be grazed for the first two years after establishment.

A honey bee on the blossom of a common sainfoin in a flowering meadow. DepositPhotos
A honey bee on the blossom of a common sainfoin in a flowering meadow. DepositPhotos

Sainfoin honey is light and fruity

Honey lovers describe the flavor of sainfoin as lightly fruity and not overly sweet. The downside of sainfoin as a honey crop is that it crystallizes within two or three months of harvest. Some beekeepers recommend selling it immediately or using it for creamed honey, depending on your local market.

If your soil and moisture conditions are right, sainfoin could be a good option for you and your bees. If you are unsure, have your soil tested and check with your local extension agent for recommendations.

Honey Bee Suite

Sainfoin flower with bumble bee Pixabay
Sainfoin flower with bumble bee. Pixabay

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About Me

I backed my love of bee science with a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I write extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. I’ve endured multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist and other organizations. My master beekeeper certificate issued from U Montana. I’m also an English nerd. More here.


  • Never heard of it! I looked it up on YouTube, and there’s a beautiful drone video of fields of pink! Rusty, thanks for the information!

  • You can purchase sainfoin seed from Montana Seed Incorporated. 406-278-9951. I have been very good luck with germination here in Ohio. As always, the weeds seem to be the biggest hurdle now.

  • In southern Alberta, sainfoin has begun naturalizing in recent years and is starting to become a problem. It’s not yet quite at the status of “weed”, but it would not take much to get there. It has started showing up in Kananaskis and also in Waterton Lakes National Park. There are places around Claresholm that are becoming oceans of pink in the summer months. While an attractive plant, certainly, I would recommend that people be cautious about planting it and being diligent about controlling its spread if they do.

  • carries this along with a zillion other cover crops, and sends you a wonderful booklet about soil science..

  • Although half of my pasture has esparcet, I somehow didn’t think before your article about raising bees. Maybe putting in hives isn’t such a bad idea! Thank you for the article =)

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