Down on the (Ant) Farm: Fun with Formicariums

 In Blog

The ant farm is a piece of pure American nostalgia straight out of the back pages of a Boy’s Life magazine from the 1950s. Back then, these types of at-home science experiments were all the rage, spurred on by a renewed interest in science and engineering post-World War II. But watching ants scurry around is a bit different – and stranger – than your standard chemistry set. Where did such a bizarre concept originate, and how did it become a pop culture phenomenon? As always, Anderson Pest Solutions has the ant farm answers you’re asking for.

A Truly Scientific Origin Story

At the turn of the 20th century, a French entomologist named Charles Janet first came up with the idea of squeezing an ant’s nest between two panes of glass to visualize how they weaved their intricate tunnels. He called it a formicarium, named after the vivarium, which is an enclosed space biologists use to keep and study animals and plants. Though his exhibition at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 would bring him much critical acclaim, he didn’t see any commercial viability for his discovery, and decided not to patent or market it in any way. It wasn’t until 1929 that inventor and professor Frank Eugene Austin of Dartmouth College developed a formicarium for commercial use; though it saw modest success, it would still take some time for it to truly catch on in the marketplace.

Uncle Milton and His Astounding Ant Farms

Just after the end of World War II, a young sergeant in the Army Corps of Engineers named Milton Levine returned home to his native Pittsburgh after a tour in Germany. However, Milton found that civilian life lacked the excitement and unpredictability of military deployment, so he and his brother-in-law decided to start their own mail-order novelty company to make a quick buck. They sold all sorts of weird gag items from animal balloons to “dwarf tree” kits to plastic shrunken heads, and sales were good enough to move the company into a warehouse on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Just as Levine felt business was beginning to get a bit stale, he hit upon an idea that would change his life – and American pop culture – forever.

While at a Fourth of July picnic in 1956, he noticed a bunch of ants scurrying around between the cracks and crevices of a wooden pool deck, and recalled how fascinated he was as a child with watching ants build their nests. What if he and his brother-in-law, Joe, could create some type of toy so kids could watch these busy ants from inside their own homes? It was then and there that Uncle Milton Industries and the “ant farm” were born. These plastic, sand-filled Ant Farms (he wisely trademarked the term) originally sold for $1.98 apiece, and over the next 20 years “Uncle Milton” would sell over 12 million of them.

The trend for ant farms may have died down a bit in the mid-to-late 70s, but the product still managed to make a lasting impact – more than 20 million ant farms have been sold across the globe, and the Toy Industry Association named it one of the Top 100 Toys of the Century –fitting for a product that, like the lowly ant, achieved great things from humble beginnings.


Ants and Their Impact on Today’s Technology

Formicariums have allowed scientists in many different fields to make important discoveries through myrmecology, or the scientific study of ants and their behavior. Early myrmecologists believed that ant colonies were the ideal form of society, and used formicariums to study ant behavior for solutions to human problems. In addition to standard biological studies, ants are often studied by structural engineers as well as network engineers because of their efficiencies in construction and movement.

Technology companies today study ants’ hive-mind behavior and adaptability for use in modeling complex machine-learning algorithms and parallel computing for the next generation of artificial intelligence. Most famously, the Ant Colony Optimization (ACO) system was created in 1999 to study artificial systems that use real-life behavior of ant colonies to solve optimization problems in computer processing environments.

In fact, ant farms have even ventured into the digital realm. In 1991, computer software developer Maxis (makers of popular video games SimCity and The Sims) released SimAnt, a simulation of an ant colony where the player takes control of a black ant in a colony in a suburban backyard. The goal of the game is to help your colony thrive, defeat the evil red ants, and eventually infiltrate the house and drive out its human owners. By April of 1992, SimAnt had sold over 100,000 copies, proving that maybe the ant farm craze isn’t as dead as we might have thought.

Anderson Pest Keeps You Protected from Any Unwanted Ants

Ants are one of the world’s smartest insects, with over 250,000 brain cells. It’s fascinating to watch their colonies in action and there is much we, as humans, can learn from the humble, yet sophisticated ant. However, the only ants you want in your house are the ones safely behind glass in your formicarium – be sure to use vegetable oil, petroleum jelly or Teflon coating applied to the sides so the ants can’t climb out. If you do spy any rogue agents, contact Anderson Pest Solutions to take care of the infestation ASAP.