RIP, Uncle Milton. The ant farm lives on.
Even before the execrable comedian Milton Berle dubbed himself “Uncle Miltie”, there was a kinder, gentler, and probably funnier Uncle Milton, and that was Uncle Milton Levine, inventor of Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm.
No, I never had an ant farm. In our house, we were ant cuppers, not ant farmers. If you wanted to see ants during the summer, you could either find them dead or dying near the ant cups, or head out doors and find them pretty much anywhere. If you wanted to see ants during the winter, well, tough luck.
Ant farms came to mind, of course, with the January passing of Milton Levine, which was reported the other day in The NY Times.
Levine died at the satisfyingly ripe old age of 97, which is more than 97 times longer than even a long-lived ant farm ant spends on this earth. Having invented the ant farm in 1956, Levine had well over 50 years to enjoy watching, and profiting from, several generations of ant farming kids. And here is the man himself, obviously enjoying the fruits of his imagination and labor.
First dubbed an antarium, and, when brought to market known by its far kid-friendlier name as an ant farm, over 20 million of these have been sold over the years. That’s a lot of ant farms. And when you factor in replacement ants, which come approximately 30 to a vial, that’s a lot of ants. Even though we know that it is highly likely that, for the majority of those 20 million ant farms sold, the endless fascination of watching ants mosey around in sand probably wasn’t all that endlessly fascinating once the first batch of farmers (farm-ees?) died out. And die out they did, as there’s no queen
bee ant to keep the wheels of reproduction moving along, so the ants who end up in the ant farm gulag are something of the Shakers of the insect world. And once you’re in an ant farm, you’re pretty much stuck for life, unless Junior decides to jump up and down on it with his pogo stick, or shoot it up with his bee-bee gun. (The farms are break-resistant and escape proof, but I’m sure not hell-bent kid proof.)
Anyway, Uncle Milton’s company, the eponymous Uncle Milton’s, sells a lot more than just ant farms and replacement ants. You can get Star Wars-related science kits; wind up tarantulas (I guess there are laws about shipping real ones); disease-free tadpoles (I guess there are laws about shipping diseased ones); and aquasaurs, longtail tadpole shrimp that have apparently done no evolving whatsoever in 70 million years, coining them the title the “living fossil.”
Alas, you can no long get:
…“Executive Antropolis,” a mahogany-framed farm-cum-desk-set with a black and gold Manhattan skyline. It never sold as well as the original models.
Which would have made for some office fun.
Uncle Milton’s lasted as an independent company up until a year or so go when a private equity company snapped them up for $20M. Private equity, is, of course, something of a four-letter word (like hiss, and booo – if you add an “o”), but I’m sure the Levine family was delighted to get the $20 million they cashed out for. That’s about a buck for each ant farm sold over time. Not bad!
Naturally, there are competitive ant farms out there. And the one above looks like a honey.
This type of Ant Farm was devised by NASA scientists when they wanted to understand how ants responded to weightlessness in space!
But I say accept no substitutes. Private equity or not, the original is still the greatest. Shop Uncle Milton.