JULY
2011

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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07-14-11

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Bees and Clover


New England poet Emily Dickinson began one of her nature poems with the line: "To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee." Clover is a plant, and a bee is an insect that most people recognize when they see them.

honeybee
honeybee

We also generally have some notion that bees are often found around clover plants. To be sure, such knowledge could be the result of a bad experience - a sting! We might have been stung while running barefoot across the lawn and stepping on a bee visiting a flower.

It is possible that our personal knowledge of the ability of a bee to inflict a sting might have been generated when we intentionally or accidentally grabbed a bee in our hand. Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote about such an incident:

Wunst I watched one climb clean 'way
In a jimson-blossom, I did one day
An' I is grabbed it - an nen let go –
An' "Ooh-ooh! Honey! I told ye so!"
Says the Raggedy Man: an he is run
An' pullt out the stinger, an' don't laugh none.

Riley's poem is titled "The Bumblebee." But if the Raggedy Man pulled out a stinger, it must have been a honeybee that did the stinging because that is the only bee that leaves a stinger in the skin.

clover
white clover

Emily Dickinson did not specify the type of bee or clover that she had in mind in her poem. There are about 300 species of clover and nearly 20,000 species of bees. Because she didn't tell us, the kind of bee and type of clover Emily Dickinson is referencing is anyone's guess.

The natural history in Dickinson's poem is even more challenging because of the reference to a prairie. In general, clover species are not common in prairies of North America. That is the case even though the greatest diversity of this group of plants is found in temperate habitats of the Northern Hemisphere.

The common clovers that people recognize were introduced to the United States as fodder or pasture plants because they are highly palatable to livestock. These include the white and red clovers, and neither would have been found in a native prairie habitat. Such clovers, though, are common in agricultural lands such as old fields or pastures. In all likelihood, Emily Dickinson was describing what most of us probably would call a meadow.

The connection between bees and clover is a mutually beneficial relationship known as pollination. The plant bribes the insect with nectar, and the insect repays the plant by carrying pollen from flower to flower. As a result of this relationship, the insect gets food and the plant is able to reproduce. In today's lingo, it is a win-win situation for both the plant and insect.

Bees and clover are also a winning combination as far as humans are concerned. At least, it is for those humans who like to consume honey. The clovers are such good nectar-producing plants that they are the source of much of the honey marketed by beekeepers in the United States.

The honeybees maintained by beekeepers get from white clovers the nectar that is the source of clover honey. The nectar produced by red clovers is not accessible to honeybees. Why? Because the tongues of honeybees are too short to reach the nectar of the flower.

On the other hand, bumble bees are long-tongued and can reach the nectar of a red clover flower. That is why fields of red clover were always heavily populated with nests of bumble bees by the end of the growing season. That is also why many old farmers have tales to tell of the hazards of plowing up clover fields in the fall – the bumblebees didn't take kindly to having their nests destroyed!

What exactly did Emily Dickinson have in mind when she penned the line about a bee, a clover and a prairie? I believe she used the bee and the clover and the unstated pollination connection to symbolize the components and the process of creating something much larger - a prairie. Or as Walt Disney said: "If you can dream it you can do it!"

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox