Long before the first formicarium (ant farm) was invented, scientists had been observing the complex behavior of ants. In biology, ants have long served as models of advanced social systems, with individuals instinctively taking on different roles to serve the colony as a whole. Scientists who study the psychology and social structure of ants are called myrmecologists.
The first formicarium was patented in 1931 by Frank Austin, an inventor and professor at Dartmouth College, who reportedly came up with the idea while observing an ant colony working cooperatively to repair their home. This original ant farm consisted of a wooden frame fitted with two panes of glass. It was filled with special New Hampshire soil and equipped with an upper platform and a designated compartment in the lower corner that the ants would instinctively use to dispose of waste. Ants naturally try to hide from view, but Austin had the idea that if the two panes of glass were close enough to each other, the tunneling behavior of the ants would be visible from the sides. At first these were marketed to classrooms and museums, but soon the general public caught wind of the idea and it gained mass appeal.
Uncle Milton was the first company to mass-produce ant farms and sell them nationwide, beginning in the 1950s. Early articles on Milton Levine, the founder of Uncle Milton, claim that he dreamed up the idea entirely on his own, even though his prototypes were almost identical to Austin’s original design. Uncle Milton is also reported to own the trademark name “ant farm.” Uncle Milton’s original ant farm kits included a plastic viewing box, a bag of sand and a vial of live ants. When the product’s popularity immediately skyrocketed, the company’s founders teamed up with an ant collector whose sole role was to provide all the ants for the farms sold by Uncle Milton. The design of the Uncle Milton farm was soon altered to include a green plastic cityscape affixed to the clear plastic walls of the habitat. This design is still sold today, virtually unchanged.
Uncle Milton has also been responsible for the recent advances to formicarium technology, selling many versions of the modern habitat filled with ant gel. Ant gel is a specially-formulated nutritional gel that was designed to support a colony of ants during a NASA space flight. For that experiment, which observed the behavior of ants in zero gravity, scientists needed a substrate that could replace the traditional sand or dirt and also provide food and water to the ants. The experiment was a success, and soon the ant gel went commercial. Ant gel revolutionized the industry by providing a completely transparent viewing area. Not only is it easier to observe the tunnels and behavior of ants through the gel, but many of these farms are sold with lighted bases that illuminate the gel to provide an even clearer look at the ants’ work.
For more information, check out our review of ant farms.