Ant Farms – Evolution in Action


Ant Farms – Evolution in Action

 Ant farms are one of the most popular educational ‘toys’ on the market today. And there’s no doubt that kids can learn an awful lot about ants, social insects, group behaviour, and all sorts of other interactions by watching ants going about their business. But how did it all start?

Victorian invention

Well, the history is a bit murky but, as far as I can tell, people first started constructing ant farms in the Victorian period. Until the mid 1800’s, glass had been a fairly expensive commodity and certainly not something one would ‘waste’ on a child’s toy. Until the development of the float glass process, most window glass had been produced by the cylinder method, invented by Sir Henry Bessemer in 1848. Glass was made in large tubes which were then cut open and polished; no wonder it was expensive.  Who first had the idea of making an ant farm by sandwiching a layer of sand between two glass sheets as a habitat for ants, we don’t know but it is quite likely to have been one of the Victorian ‘gentleman’ naturalists.

These were men, usually with a private income, who, to put it bluntly, had little else to do with their time except go exploring and studying the natural world. We have a lot to thank them for, as the undoubtedly contributed much to our understanding of nature. The early models were call formicaria and tended to be located in schools and museums.

Float Glass to the Rescue

It wasn’t until the late 1950’s, when Sir Alastair Pilkington developed the float glass process, which involved floating molten glass on a layer of molten tin, that perfectly flat glass became widely and cheaply available.

This made it possible for kids and adults alike to build ant farms simply and easily with waste glass.

Uncle Milton Gets the Ball Rolling

Simultaneously, a toy company based in Hollywood of all places, Uncle Milton Industries, began to market plastic ant habitats with great success. They called the toy an ‘ant farm’ and registered the name. Now, 50 years later, the ant farm has evolved into dozens of different models, of all shapes and sizes. Even NASA has got in on the act by developing an ant farm where the burrowing medium is not sand but a transparent nutrient gel. These are now widely available too. From the early formicaria of the gentleman naturalists to the space-age gel versions of today. The ant farm is as popular now as it ever was, and the amazing activities of ants still hold us in thrall just as they did all those years ago.  

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