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Title: Formicarium  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: List of inventors, Ant, Ant farm (disambiguation), Charles Janet, Micro landschaft
Collection: Buildings and Structures Used to Confine Animals, Educational Toys, Myrmecology, Pet Equipment
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Ants tunneling through a formicarium

A formicarium or ant farm is a vivarium which is designed primarily for the study of ant colonies and how ants behave. Those who study ant behavior are known as myrmecologists.


  • History 1
  • Materials 2
  • Laws on keeping ants 3
  • Popular culture 4
  • See also 5
  • External links 6
  • References 7


The formicarium was invented by Charles Janet, a French entomologist and polymath, who had the idea of reducing the three dimensions of an ant nest to the virtual two dimensions between two panes of glass.[1] His design was exhibited in the Exposition Universelle (1900) in Paris. Janet's invention was recognized by his promotion to Chevalier (Knight) of the Legion of Honour, but he did not obtain a patent for, nor attempt to market, his creation. The first commercially sold formicarium was introduced around 1929 by Frank Eugene Austin (1873-1964 [2]), an inventor and professor at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College.[3][4] Austin received a patent for his formicarium on June 16, 1931,[5][6] as well as further patents for its continued development.[7][8] Austin included whimsical painted or wooden scenes of palaces, farms and other settings above the ground level. In 1956, Milton Levine, founder of Uncle Milton Industries, created his own version of a formicarium, reportedly independently from Frank Austin. Levine got the idea when attending a Fourth of July picnic.[9][10]

Levine coined the term "ant farm" for his product and registered the name as a trademark.[11] Austin may not have used this term; in his patents, the formicarium is referred to as an "educational apparatus" and "scenic insect cage", and in the 1936 magazine article about Austin's device, the structure is called an "ant palace".


A formicarium is usually a transparent box made of glass or plastic, made thin enough so that the tunnels and cavities made by the ants can be seen and their behavior can be studied. The fill material is typically soil, loam, sand, vermiculite, other mineral fragments or sawdust. Modern formicaria may be filled with semi-transparent gel, which provides nutrition, moisture and a medium in which ants may nest but does not supply a source of protein, essential for the queen and larvae.

Other types of formicaria are those made with plaster, autoclaved aerated concrete (AAC) or simply with no medium. Plaster nests can be made by placing modeling clay on a glass panel in the form of tunnels and chambers. The plaster is poured onto the mold, and when the plaster dries, the clay is removed and the remaining structure can be used for housing ants. The ants in this type of formicarium are very easily seen. Mediumless formicaria may be in any container, with the ants staying in moist test tubes or other small containers. This also allows for better visibility, but can be less interesting because no digging takes place.

A formicarium can be designed to be free-standing, and not enclosed or lidded like a vivarium. A free-standing design does not require high walls and a lid, but rather relies on barriers to secure the ants within their habitat.

Formicarium with AAC nest and talcum for escape prevention

Containing ants inside a formicarium can be a challenge. Several substances are used to repel the ants, including vegetable oil, petroleum jelly or PTFE (Teflon), which are applied to the side of the formicarium to prevent escape, as most ants cannot walk on these slippery or sticky surfaces. Despite this, some species of ants can build bridges of debris or dirt on the substance to escape, while in other species some individual ants can walk on the substance without impedance. Formicarium owners often make use of two or more security measures. Another escape-prevention technique involves placing the entire formicarium in a shallow container of water, creating a moat.

For the first three days, a formicarium owner must let the ants become acclimated to their new environment. This can be done by putting a black towel over the formicarium. Some owners shake their formicarium every few days so that the tunnels cave in, allowing them to observe their ants digging new tunnels. However, this practice can compromise the safety of the ants and may be considered a form of animal cruelty.

Laws on keeping ants

In the United States of America, it is usually illegal to ship live queen ants between state lines, and ant farms sold there contain no queens. In Europe, some domestic species (such as Formica rufa) are protected, and it is illegal to own, keep, buy or sell these ants or to damage their nests. However, unlike for reptiles and spiders, there are no rules for owning, keeping, buying or selling non-protected species. Some formicaria sold there may not contain queens, but professional "ant shops" usually sell their colonies with queens.

Popular culture

That the term "ant farm" is covered by a trademark received notoriety when Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, used the phrase in one of his comic strips. Adams received threatening letters from Uncle Milton Industries' attorneys, demanding a retraction for the unauthorized use of the phrase. Adams satirized the incident in a later comic strip, in which Dilbert asked for a substitute phrase for "a habitat for worthless and disgusting little creatures", to which Dogbert replied "law school".[12][13]

"Ant Farm" is a song by the band Eels appearing on their album Electro-Shock Blues.

A Disney Channel TV series is called A.N.T. Farm.

See also

External links

  • Ants, Ant Keeping & Myrmecology Discussion Forum


  1. ^ Janet, Charles (1893). "Appareil pour l'élevage et l’observation des fourmis". Annales Société Entomologique de France 62: 467–482. 
  2. ^ Anonyous (2011 (acc. January 15, 2014)). "Biography & History.". Dartmouth College Library. 
  3. ^ KC Cramer (April, 1993 (acc. January 14, 2014)). "The Austin ant house.". Dartmouth College Library. 
  4. ^ Anonymous (May 1, 2006 (acc. January 14, 2014)). "The Original Ant Farm (Jun, 1936).". Modern Mechanix. 
  5. ^ SM Scott (2009 (acc. January 15, 2014)). "Toys and American Culture: An Encyclopedia.". ABC-CLIO, LLC. 
  6. ^ FE Austin (June 16, 1931 (acc. January 15, 2014)). "US Patent 1,810,745. F.E. Austin. Educational Apparatus.". USPTO. 
  7. ^ FE Austin (May 11, 1937 (acc. January 18, 2014)). "US Patent 2,080,160. F.E. Austin. Scenic Insect Cage.". USPTO. 
  8. ^ FE Austin (September 26, 1939 (acc. January 18, 2014)). "US Patent 2,174,305. F.E. Austin. Scenic Insect Cage.". USPTO. 
  9. ^ Carlyn Main (2014 (acc. January 14, 2014)). "History of the Ant Farm.". Techmedia Network. 
  10. ^ Dennis Hevesi (January 29, 2011 (acc. January 14, 2014)). "Milton M. Levine, Inventor of Ant Farm, Dies at 97.". NY Times. 
  11. ^ Anonymous (January 8, 2009 (acc. January 18, 2014)). "Word Mark: ANT FARM (renewal).". USPTO. 
  12. ^ Stacy Cowley (March 7, 2007). Dilbert' Creator, Open-Source Maverick Address EclipseCon"'". CRN. 
  13. ^ Scott Adams, "Dilbert," United Feature Syndicate, Inc., December 30, 1995
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