September 11, 1995 12:00 PM

HAVING A BAD DAY? BOSS ON YOUR back? It could be worse. You could be Afton Fawcett, the nation’s leading ant hunter, whose chosen profession entails rounding up red harvester ants with a drinking straw. “Nothing hurts worse than the sting of an ant’s bite,” says Fawcett, who has been bitten hundreds of times in 25 years of collecting ants. “But at least I’m my own boss, and I’m breathing fresh air.”

Fawcett, 67, a former mineral collector who lives in Hurricane, Utah, got into harvester harvesting in 1970 when a customer asked him to supply talent for his ant-farm enterprise. “I needed a variety that could survive in confinement and tolerate three days in the mail,” says Fawcett. “Just my luck, harvester ants—the ones with the worst bite—were the only ones that passed the test.”

After experimenting unsuccessfully with a portable vacuum cleaner, Fawcett devised a foolproof system of ant hunting. Kneeling beside the anthill, he blows into the nest through a straw, driving the ants into a small trench nearby, then scoops them up and puts them in a jar. Unfortunately this technique also makes the ants furious and prone to attack.

Still, with sales now approaching 7 million ants annually, Fawcett has taken on a partner—his son Kent, 30. They take turns heading out to the desert around Hurricane to raid the hundreds of anthills, always being careful to leave the queen ant behind so the nests can regenerate. For each vial of 30 ants—enough to stock a typical farm—the Fawcetts earn 55 cents. “If you buy an ant farm,” says Kent proudly, “you can bet those ants were dug up by us.”

Afton’s wife, Viola, 64, was lukewarm to the business at first. “I wasn’t enthused about having a houseful of ants,” she says, recalling how Afton used to store his catch in the refrigerator. “But now I’m glad. It’s a fun thing the whole family can do together.”

Ant hunting has been good to the Fawcetts. One year Afton earned $80,000, and, despite the risks, the job makes him happy. “If I had to sit all day at a desk,” he says, “I’d get antsy.”

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