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The Story of an Irish Hive

July 2021 by Fred Warden

I have always enjoyed the history of Irish beekeeping and even more so when it’s local. There are so many stories that the old-timer beekeepers can share (if only we ask) and that is apart from the wealth of practical local beekeeping wisdom they humbly hold.

One such story is that of the somewhat oddly named Congested Districts Board (or CDB) hive which came into my possession a few years ago.

I know its provenance since it was purchased at a clearance sale of a close neighbour, John Robson, in 1984. The hives are just visible to the side of the glasshouses in this photograph taken in 1968.

"Guaranteed Pure Irish Honey, J Robson, Cunningburn, Newtownards."

John ran a market garden from home and sold the produce at his grocer’s shop in Newtownards from 1920 until the 1960s, including of course, local honey.

The CDB hive (see ref 1) was designed at the request of the Congested Districts Board in Dublin by Abbott Bros in 1894 specifically for use in the often wet and windy conditions down the west coast of rural Ireland. It was the first standardised hive to be widely used in Ireland. (see ref 2)

It was widely sold throughout the west of Ireland and also along coastal parts of Ulster. Our hive has the original agent’s plate of R & E McCutcheons, Cromac Street, Belfast and it probably dates back to around 1920.

A good scorching of the interior with a blow torch and repainting was all it really needed to get it back into use. Things were built to last in those days.

Here’s the technical bit. But don’t just skip it like unread instruction book that come with the box!

The hive takes national standard frames (so any manipulations involving frames can still interchange with existing national hives) and sits on its own floor with splayed legs.

The floor has a 4 inch by 4 inch vent with a built in slide underneath which can be adjusted to alter ventilation as required. Note that this was 100 years before modern OMF ventilated floors became all the fashion.

The outside skin of the brood box goes down past the floor sides making it very weather proof (unlike the National which has exposed seams at each join). The lift will handle two supers or three section racks and sits down over the brood chamber slightly to make it weather proof.

The original CDB hive was designed for production of section honey which was the most common method of honey production in those days. I find section honey only works for me in seasons with exceptionally good weather (so maybe 2021?) so I use it for run honey production instead. In addition, clever design of the lift means it can be turned upside down and slid down over the brood chamber giving further insulation and weather protection over the winter. This also lowers the height of the hive to make it less of a wind catch during stormy winter months.

Its insulation is outstanding. I find it overwinters colonies much better than wooden Nationals and just as well as modern Poly hives and for this reason I would tend to put more vulnerable colonies or nucs in the CDB to overwinter.

Their only drawback is that they are not very practical when moving hives a distance such as my annual trip to Armagh but most beekeepers anyhow use static hives in the one place all year round.

It would be great if the CDB made a comeback. Its a perfectly good design, has a distinguished Irish history and more aesthetically pleasing than the more commonly used ‘packing box style’ Nationals or even the conventionally pretty WBCs.

How many visitors to your apiary are visibly let down when they see your National hive?

... ”it’s just a box”

A CDB hive renovated by Mark Wallace

CDB hives are still being handmade by beekeeper Tuddy Clifford near the Gap of Dunloe, Beaufort, County Kerry. Tuddy makes 20-30 of this hives every year for Beaufort Association members and he kindly shared a short video explaining his version of the mighty CDB hive.

They are also available commercially from Donegal Bees ( see ref 3)

Thanks so much to CDB afficionados Mark Wallace of Three Rivers Beekeepers Association,Tuddy Clifford of and our own club president David Wright for their help with this article.


2) pages 176-210


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