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What is an Ant Farm?

Dana Hinders
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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An ant farm is an educational toy that is based on a formicarium, which is a special type of insectarium that is used to study ant behavior in ant colonies.

Ant farms were first introduced to the public in 1929. Frank Eugene Austin, professor at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering, patented the ant farm in 1931. Austin’s ant farms were whimsical in nature and often included replicas of palace or farm scenes in order to increase their appeal among young science students.

Today, “Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm” is perhaps the most widely known ant farm designed for children. Since these educational toys were first distributed in 1956, more than 20 million ant farms of various shapes and sizes have been sold. Uncle Milton Industries, a California-based company, is also the owner of the “ant farm” registered trademark. You can buy “Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm” toys online or at larger toy stores throughout the United States. The purchaser must submit a special coupon in order to receive the ants by mail.

While many parents choose to purchase ant farms for their children to use in school science projects, it also possible to create your own formicarium for ant observation. An ant farm is typically very tall and thin, since this allows tunnels and cavities to be more easily observed. Homemade ant farms are often stocked with sand, soil, sawdust, or a semi-clear gel that allows the owner to closely observe the ants. Among serious observers of ant behavior, plaster nests made from modeling clay are also quite popular. To collect ants for your homemade ant farm, simply place a large jar filled with a small amount of sugar water outside your home.

One of the most common problems associated with making your own ant farm is containing the ants within the structure. Since ants are small and agile, they can escape through cracks that are not easily visible. Coating the sides of the ant farms with vegetable oil or petroleum jelly helps to repel the ants. Another common tactic is to put the ant farm in a shallow container of water to create a moat that will safely contain the ants.

In a tribute to the timeless appeal of the ant farm, Maxis released a SimAnt computer game in 1991. Designed by Will Wright, the creator of The Sims and Sim City, this unique game provides a high-tech look at what goes on inside an ant farm. Players learned about concepts such as the ant’s caste system and their food gathering behavior.

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Dana Hinders
By Dana Hinders
With a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Iowa, Dana Hinders brings a strong foundation to her work as a freelance writer. After discovering her passion for freelance writing following the birth of her son, Dana has been a vital part of the WiseGeek team. She also showcases her versatility by creating sales copy and content for e-courses and blogs.
Discussion Comments
By turquoise — On Jul 04, 2012

@golf07-- Have you seen the new ant farms that are out now? My husband and I got one for my niece's birthday and it looks a lot different than Uncle Milton's ant farms that we had as kids.

The one we bought called "Antworks ant farm" is made of a special gel instead of sand and you don't give them food because the gel is also the food. So the ants make the tunnels in the gel by eating away at it.

The gel one seems easier to observe but I think I still prefer the traditional ant farms with sand. It's kind of odd for ants to be living in gel and also eating it. Plus, it was so fun to give the ants food and watch them carry it through the tunnels.

By SarahGen — On Jul 04, 2012

I've been considering making my own ant farm because we have an ant infestation at my home right now. For the past week, ants have been showing up in larger numbers around the house. We have been trying all-natural methods to get them to leave. I have been observing them to find out the "doorways" or cracks they use to get in and out of rooms. I've been putting cinnamon and chili on the cracks to prevent them from coming in.

It isn't working! They are still around and my mom is so upset with them. The only good thing that has come out of this is that I have learned a lot about ants. It's so fun to watch them carry little food pieces to their home. I also like how they use teamwork to carry large pieces or to break them apart into smaller pieces.

I'm sure I could gather a bunch of them by putting some sugar in a deep glass. The problem is, I doubt I can get them to stay in the ant farm for long. These guys are really smart and know how to get around obstacles. I'm sure they would all be out of the farm in no time.

By golf07 — On Jul 04, 2012

I had an "Uncle Milton's Ant Farm" when I was a kid. I don't remember what ever happened to my ant farm, but remember that I had a lot of fun with it.

A few years ago with I saw the SimAnt computer game, I was reminded of the ant farm I had as a kid and thought my son would enjoy this game. He built a big virtual ant farm village with this game.

Not only did he enjoy building this giant ant farm, but he also learned a lot about ants as he was doing this. I think this is a great way for kids to learn. He probably learned much more from this computer game than he would if he had just read about ants in a book.

By LisaLou — On Jul 03, 2012

My boys always wanted an ant farm, and we bought both of them a kids ant farm kit one year. They were so excited when they arrived in the mail and couldn't wait to get them set up.

One boy quickly lost interest after a week or so, but the other one was completely fascinated with them and ended up taking care of both of them.

I think this ant farm was the beginning of his love of science. He is now a high school science and biology teacher and still enjoys teaching kids about ants and how they work and live.

By honeybees — On Jul 03, 2012

I knew ant farms had been around a long time, but didn't realize they were first made public so long ago. When we were kids we made our own ant farms.

This was always a favorite summer project and we got pretty creative at the way we built our ant farms. Just because we were creative doesn't mean we were always successful. It kind of became a contest to see who had the biggest ant farm by the end of the summer.

Even though I have never purchased an ant farm kit, I have had many of my own ant farms. I was always fascinated by the way the ants moved and worked, and how they could carry something so easily that was much heavier than their body weight.

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders
With a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Iowa, Dana Hinders brings a strong foundation to...
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