The formicarium was invented by Charles Janet, a French entomologist and polymath, who had the idea of reducing the three-dimensions of an ants' nest to the virtual two dimensions between two panes of glass. His design was exhibited in the Exposition Universelle (1900) in Paris. His invention was recognized by his promotion to Chevalier (Knight) of the Legion of Honour, but he did not obtain a patent or attempt to market it. The first commercially-sold formicarium was introduced around 1929 by Frank Eugene Austin (1873-1964 ), an inventor and professor at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. He received a patent for it on June 16, 1931, as well as further patents for its continued development. Austin included painted or wooden scenes of palaces, farms, other settings above the ground level, for a whimsical look. In 1956, Milton Levine, founder of Uncle Milton Industries, created his own version of an ant farm, reportedly independently from Frank Austin; Levine got the idea during a Fourth of July picnic he was attending.
Levine coined (and registered ) the term ant farm, or rather Ant Farm®, for his product. 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, it is repetitively being called an ant palace.
A formicarium is usually a transparent box made of glass or plastic. Ant farms are usually made thin enough so the tunnels and cavities made by the ants can be seen and their behavior can be studied. They can be filled with soil, loam, sand, vermiculite, other mineral fragments, or sawdust. Newer formicariums may be filled with semi-transparent gel (pictured above), which provides nutrition, moisture and a medium for the ants to nest but does not supply a source of protein which is essential for the queen and larvae.
Other types of formicariums 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 it has dried 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 formicariums can 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.
Whether ants dig or not, e.g., tree ants, a formicarium can be designed so that it is 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; barriers include those listed below, and may include a moat of vegetable oil.
Often, 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"). They are applied to the side of the formicarium to prevent escape. These substances are generally too slippery or sticky for the ants to walk on. Despite this, some species of ants can build bridges of debris or dirt on the substance to escape, while others demonstrate that some individuals can walk on the substance without impedance. A formicarium owner may well make use of two or more security measures.
Another way of preventing the ants from escaping is to place the entire formicarium in a shallow container of water, creating a moat.
For the first three days, a formicarium owner has to let the ants get used to their new environment. This can be done by putting a black towel over the formicarium. However, some formicarium owners shake their formicarium every few days so the tunnels cave in. This practice allows owners to reset the formicarium and observe their ants dig tunnels all over again. This practice, however, is done at the owner's (and his/her ants) risk, as it may compromise the safety of the ants.
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, for example Formica rufa, are protected, and it is illegal to own/keep/buy/sell them or to damage their nests, but, unlike for reptiles and spiders, there are no rules for owning/keeping/buying/selling non-protected European or non-European species. Some ant farms sold there may not contain queens, but professional "ant shops" usually always sell their colonies with queens.
The fact 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. Upon using the term "ant farm", Adams subsequently received threatening letters from Uncle Milton industries' attorneys, demanding a retraction for the unauthorized use of the phrase "ant farm" in his comic strip.
In reaction to the legal threat, Adams satirized the incident in a later comic strip. In that strip, Dilbert asked for a substitute for the trademarked phrase "ant farm", looking for another word for "a habitat for worthless and disgusting little creatures." To which the character Dogbert replied "Law school." 
A Disney Channel TV Series is called A.N.T. Farm.
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- Janet, Charles (1893). "Appareil pour l'élevage et l’observation des fourmis". Annales Société Entomologique de France 62: 467–482.
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