Milton Levine with ant farm
Damian Dovarganes  /  AP
"It's like the story of life," says 92-year-old Milton Levine, the man behind the Ant Farm. "They see a whole generation live and die. Even the die part is important, teaches kids nothing lives forever."
updated 3/13/2006 1:59:56 PM ET 2006-03-13T18:59:56

A billion ants carried Milton Levine's three kids through school. In fact, the pesky insects have been making him money for five decades.

"I have a lot of empathy for them," said Levine, 92, the man behind the Ant Farm.

This year marks a half-century since Levine began selling his Uncle Milton Ant Farm — the sand-filled, clear plastic boxes through which ant voyeurs can watch the insects tunnel and eat, and later die.

Levine said more than 20 million of his Ant Farms have been sold, with more than a billion ants shipped to customers eager to bring their toys to life.

"Never in my wildest dreams had I thought it would last 50 years," said Levine, who retired 10 years ago and left his son, Steve, to run Uncle Milton Industries.

At a time when the hottest new toys are usually powerful electronic devices, updates on Levine's classic in recent years have helped keep kids interested in something that fascinated their grandparents.

"Things come and go, but the Ant Farm is very much like Barbie or G.I. Joe or Hot Wheels that have managed to survive," said Chris Byrne, a New York-based toy consultant. "The novelty was creating a whole world that you can see."

Uncle Milton Industries also sells a variety of educational toys, including remote-controlled tarantulas, an electronic planetarium and intricate habitats for frogs, hermit crabs and small fish.

Over the years, ants have had their digs upgraded with modules that can be linked to create expandable communities. One includes a tiny bungee rope, skating loops, race cars and small stunt bike arena.

Sand has been replaced with cleaner, lighter volcanic gravel that makes it easier to see the ants. A model due out this Christmas uses green translucent gel that serves as food and water for the insects.

A medium-sized version of the classic design now retails for about $12, while the giant-sized one is about $20. A vial of replacement ants is available online for $3, plus shipping.

The family-owned company declined to release financial figures.

Levine became an ant-wrangling mogul almost overnight. He returned from the Army in 1946 and began a mail-order business with his brother-in-law. The duo sold novelty toys — small, plastic Army men, cowboys, Indians and other characters — typically a hundred for a dollar.

A decade later, an insect encounter changed everything.

Levine was at a Fourth of July picnic at his sister's home in Studio City when he spied several ants on the march along a corner of a swimming pool.

"I saw those ants, and it reminded me when I was kid I used to play with ants," Levine said. "I'd put them in a Mason jar, watch them cavort around. I thought maybe an observation kit would be good."

Levine and his business partner made the prototype Ant Farm using a clear plastic handkerchief box with a wood base. He asked his sister to draw a farm house scene from a children's book as a backdrop and plucked some ants from an empty field to inhabit the new world.

Levine placed a 3-inch classified ad in a newspaper and was soon deluged with orders.

"We had so many orders that we couldn't even fill them," he said. "And I had no idea where to get ants!"

Levine eventually found a family to collect harvester ants. He deemed the breed best-suited for the habitats because they are plentiful, dig in the daytime and aren't aggressive like fire ants.

They're also not carnivorous and don't thrive indoors — key selling points for hesitant moms.

"It's like the story of life," Levine said. "They see a whole generation live and die. Even the die part is important, teaches kids nothing lives forever."

In addition to advertising in comic books, Levine also started pitching his ant habitats to school suppliers as classroom teaching aids. The company now sells its products to retailers and no longer markets directly to consumers.

Uncle Milton Industries owns the trademark on the Ant Farm brand, but other companies have come along over the years to sell ant habitats.

Still, Levine's classic habitat design remained largely unchanged, except for bigger versions, until his son took over a decade ago.

Levine has little doubt his family can keep selling the Ant Farm.

"I guess another 50 years, the way it's going," he said. "My great-grandchildren will probably do it."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments