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  • Heather Broccard-Bell

A Brief History of Formic Pro

ADVERTORIAL: NOD APIARY PRODUCT’S

Formic Pro varroa treatments have become common place as part of many Kiwi beekeeper’s varroa management plans in recent seasons, and for good reason explains NOD Apiary Product scientist Heather Broccard-Bell.

Formic acid, or methanoic acid, is an organic compound that occurs naturally throughout the living world. This small molecule can be found taking part in and being produced by a host of life’s chemical processes, in organisms ranging from microbes to plants, animals, and fungi. As a result, formic acid is present in many foods we eat, including honey.

Since it is so common, it is not surprising that formic acid’s unique chemical properties have been harnessed for many purposes by many living things, including humans. Formic acid gets its name from the latin word formica, meaning ant, owing to its discovery in 1671 as the substance sprayed by ants defending their colonies from attack. Several other insects, including a group of stingless bees and a type of caterpillar, also use formic acid for defense.

One of the more intriguing uses of formic acid in nature, known as anting, occurs when birds intentionally provoke ants, triggering their defensive response. Scientists think the formic acid released by the ants helps the birds rid themselves of parasites, including mites.

Humans have put formic acid to work in a diverse array of applications, including in the production of sileage for cattle feed, as an energy source in fuel cells, as part of the of the leather tanning process – and of course, to treat honey bee colonies infested with Varroa destructor mites.

The Importance of Dose

Like individual people, every species has a unique genetic make-up that makes it more or less sensitive to substances like food and medications. The ability of a particular dose of a compound to kill a certain species of organism while leaving another species unharmed is how drugs like antibiotics, which target microorganisms within our bodies, work. However, a dose of an antibiotic above this “sweet spot” can be just as toxic to us as it is to our disease-causing microbes.

Formic acid is more toxic to varroa mites than it is to honey bees. Liquid formic acid has been used by beekeepers since the 1970s to control varroa mites – and beekeepers and scientists have carefully determined the “sweet spot” at which the level of formic acid kills varroa mites while doing minimal damage to the bees.

Unique Properties

Formic acid has several unique properties that make it a great miticide. One feature that separates it from other miticides is its ability to diffuse into capped brood cells to reach varroa mites where they spend the majority of their lives. Formic acid also does not build up in wax, reducing the risk that varroa will develop a tolerance due to prolonged exposure. Despite its decades-long history of use, no resistance to formic acid has emerged in varroa, likely because it acts on multiple targets within the varroa mite.

So, is formic acid a perfect varroacide? Not quite.

Liquid Limitations

Liquid formic acid must evaporate to be effective. The rate of evaporation of any liquid always depends on temperature. Using liquid formic acid means that, especially when temperatures fluctuate, it is not always easy to control the rate of evaporation to achieve that “sweet spot” dose. Too low, and the treatment leaves mites alive; too high, and you risk the health of your colony.

But the problems posed by using liquid formic acid are not limited to effects on bees. Mishandling the corrosive liquid can cause serious chemical burns. Accidentally inhaling formic acid vapours can be deadly.

We knew there had to be a better way.

NOD To the Rescue

In the 1990s, a group of Canadian beekeepers, inspired by the promise of formic acid, decided to develop an application method that was safer, more convenient, and more precise. They hoped to create a product that would be both effective and environmentally responsible. But a good idea only gets you so far.

Since honey is a food product, what is put into honey bee colonies is tightly regulated. To get their product to market, the beekeepers realized they would need to create a legal entity. NOD Apiary Products Ltd. was incorporated in 1997 with the goal of providing the infrastructure necessary to successfully navigate complex regulatory processes. NOD’s first product, Mite-Away, became available soon after.

By 2005, NOD had launched an updated version: Mite-Away II. Although Mite-Away and Mite-Away II were safer alternatives to liquid formic acid, they relied on non-recyclable plastic sleeves, and required specialized equipment to apply. With the aim of convenient, sustainable mite control in mind, NOD’s research team embarked on a mission to completely revolutionize the product design.

Continued Improvement and Global Expansion: MAQS and Formic Pro

Mite Away Quick Strips® (MAQS®) was registered in North America in 2011 and became available in New Zealand in 2014. MAQS features a saccharide matrix impregnated with formic acid, wrapped in Ecopaper. The matrix and Ecopaper work together to regulate the release of formic acid. MAQS strips are fully compostable and can be used during the honey flow.

As word spread about MAQS, so did global demand – but a new issue emerged: with shipping uncertainties, the one-year product shelf-life limited access to MAQS in some regions.

Thus, Formic Pro® (initially branded as MAQS+®) was created by adding stabilizers to the MAQS formulation. Formic Pro was launched in New Zealand and North America in 2017 boasting a 24-month shelf-life. Like MAQS, Formic Pro is easy to use, compostable, and can be applied during the honey flow. Studies show that Formic Pro and MAQS have similar efficacies, achieving up to 97% mortality in dispersal phase mites and up to 80% below the brood cap.

As of 2022, Formic Pro is available in 28 countries, and we are working hard to adapt Formic Pro for use in the many varied hive styles around the world.

We are extremely proud of what we have achieved so far – but we are not finished! As the NOD team grows, we are focused on the future and the expansion of our range of intuitive, sustainable honey bee health products.


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