I've just come home to read about the tragic news. As reported by the Huffington Post, Milton Levine, Co-Inventor of the Uncle Milton Ant Farm has died at the age of 97. See Article Here.
There is also a video on him a friend located a few weeks ago, here. It's dated somewhat but a nice video. Everyone seems quirky, almost in disbelief that they'd made so much money off of ants.
I can't say that I'm personally sad that he's dead. Ant Farms are novelty items at best. The air holes allow any species that's 1mm - 4mm long to get out which are about a third of the ants in the US. Most Camponotus and some of the larger Formica queens can't fit in theim either. They dry out really easy, which might not be a problem for species in the south west but is certainly an issue everywhere else. The lids are awful, heaven help you if you drop one in, in their Giant Ant Farm. There is no way to get it out that doesn't involved disturbing the ants and potentially destroying their tunnels. The ants you're sent in the mail, while not dangerous, are Pogonomyrmex, Harvester Ants, which have a more painful sting that Solenopsis species, Fire Ants. To they're credit, at least they're industrious. The list of problems goes on. And yet I can honestly say if we never had Ant Farms I wouldn't be fascinated by ants like I am today.
Despite basically being a death trap, the ants don't seem to care. Regardless of the colony being sustainable or not they live out their lives. Society doesn't break down just because the queen isn't around. They go right ahead and do what they need to do. It's during this time that puts everyone in a sense of child-like wonder. Enough so that people have live web cams of their ant farms and short videos of their ants on youtube. I think the one featured below captures the magic best.
I think the greatest tragedy is that Milton Levine never tried to improve the ant farm design very much. Granted his original patten was a clear cigar holder full of dirt, glued to a plank of wood, the ant farm hasn't changed over the years. A few years ago they painted it Gold, and there are a few round ones but these fail to address problems I've already mentioned. Whenever I saw Milton Levine in interviews he always struck me as a "by the books" kind of business man. It if isn't broke don't fix it. The trouble though is that the ant farm was broken from the start and that is why it will never be more than a novelty item.