Ant Farm Inventor Milton Levine Dies at 97

Sad news for those who enjoy living vicariously through arthropods. Ant farm mogul Milton M. Levine (of the Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm Levines) died last month at the age of 97, but not before selling his burgeoning scientific toys companyracing tarantulas, anyone?—to private equity firm Transom Capital for $20 million or so, which happens to be about a dollar for every Ant Farm ever sold. Treat yourself to Dennis Hevesi‘s splendid New York Times obituary of the industrious Levine, who came up with the idea for an Ant Farm after spotting a mound of ants during a Fourth of July picnic in 1956. “We should make an antarium,” he told his his brother-in-law and business partner, E. J. Cossman. And so they did. The new product, complete with farmhouse, windmill, and rarely used bridge, sold briskly, but the business wasn’t without its pitfalls, explains Hevesi:

…the plastic cases arrived uninhabited. A coupon had to be mailed back to the company so that a vial containing 25 worker ants could arrive several weeks later. Because federal law prohibited shipments of queen ants across state lines, no mating ensued on the farms, so another vial of ants had to be ordered within several months—unless the owner dug some up outside.

Now they tell us! (We accused more than one young Ant Farmer of animal neglect.) Meanwhile, the urban-themed upsell was also a struggle for Uncle Milton Industries. “For maturing ant farmers, the company later introduced ‘Executive Antropolis,’ a mahogany-framed farm-cum-desk-set with a black and gold Manhattan skyline,” writes Hevesi. “It never sold as well as the original models.”