The Ant Farm Story

Whilst making coffee this morning, I idly browsed a newspaper that was lying around. It happened to be open on the Obituary page and I started randomly reading about a certain Milton Levine who I had never heard of before, and quickly became fascinated.

There are many stories of unconventional ideas for successful large scale products but this one, an ant farm, I found quite hard to believe – I even double checked to see if it was a hoax of some form. As a niche offering I can understand it but 20 million sales is very impressive! Not so good for the ants used though as they all doomed to an early death.

From an innovation point of view I doubt if any number of company brainstorms would have come up with this as a viable commercial product. As sometimes happens, it’s one person who gets fascinated by something, wants to share this and then has enough enthusiasm to actually do something about it. It’s interesting that he started with small scale in mind but accidentally tapped into something quite extensive.

Here’s the part that caught my attention:

Levine got the idea for his ant farm at a Fourth of July picnic in Los Angeles in 1956 when he became fascinated by a colony of undertaker ants building towers, transporting crumbs and generally doing what ants do. Thinking that children would be fascinated by watching the ants, he developed a prototype “farm” using a clear plastic handkerchief box with a wooden base and filling it with sand. He then took some ants from a nearby field to populate his new world.

After placing an advert in a newspaper he found himself deluged with orders. Unable to meet demand, he eventually secured the services of a family of ant rustlers to collect red harvester ants in the Mojave Desert at one cent per ant. The breed was deemed best-suited for the ant farm because they are plentiful, are active in the daytime, are vegetarian, and do not thrive indoors if they escape.

Though the original sand was replaced with lighter volcanic gravel to make it easier to see the ants, the design of the farms remained largely unchanged until Levine’s son took over the business in the 1990s, when the ants had their digs upgraded with new modules. These included such novelties as tiny bungee ropes and ant-sized skateboarding parks. Half a century after Milton Levine’s Fourth of July picnic, more than 20 million ant farms had been sold.

All the same, some found the performance of the insects a mite disappointing. As federal law prohibits the shipment of the queen ants (which are necessary for a colony to survive), the colonies tended to be short-lived and, deprived of the pheromones that give the colony a purpose, sometimes seemed caught in an existential crisis. “After a while, they just start dying,” observed one reviewer. “They always bury their dead, and it gets a little sadder every day watching them haul the latest deaths off to where the other little bodies are. Finally there’s only one ant left, huddled up all by himself, with no one to bury him when he finally goes.”

Picture credit: top here and bottom here.

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