It may not be quite as momentous as June 1752 or Oct. 19, 1879, when Franklin harnessed lightning and Edison invented the light bulb, but July 4, 1956 deserves a place in the hearts of trivia buffs. That’s the day when Milton Levine, now 71, first poured brown sand into a clear plastic container, added several dozen harvester ants and created the Ant Farm, which he then sold by mail order for $1.98. Since then seven million Ant Farms have been bought from his warehouse, now in Culver City, Calif, and last year Levine grossed more than $1 million. The great virtue of his farms is education—you get to watch the¼” creatures tunnel, build bridges, and move mountains—and Uncle Milty, as he likes to be called, has learned well from his ants. “They’ve taught me,” he says, “how to make a damn good living.”
Ant Farms include a booklet on proper ant care and can be found (minus the ants, which are shipped separately) in toy stores, pet shops and even in the Smithsonian Institution. Nowadays the enclosed structure is made of two pieces of high impact plastic held together by a plastic frame, but Levine still uses harvester ants “because they work in the daylight.” His small model (6″x9″,½” deep, with about 30 ants) costs about $7.95 while the giant size (10″x15″,¾” deep, 45 ants) goes for $17.95. A lot of buyers are kids doing science projects, but Levine’s fans also include such celebs as Sally Field and Henny Youngman.
Levine’s ant mania dates to his youth in Pittsburgh, when he collected them on his uncle’s farm, stuck them in sand in mason jars and watched them work. After serving in the Army he started a mail-order business around 1949 and added Ant Farms to his list seven years later. You might think he’d be sick of his specialized trade by now, but perseverance is another thing ants have taught him. “An ant is predestined before she’s hatched to be something all her life—nursemaid, farmer, even a pallbearer,” Uncle Milty says. “She doesn’t change occupation.”