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. 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), an inventor and professor at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. Austin received a patent for his formicarium on June 16, 1931, as well as further patents for its continued development. 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. Levine registered the term ant farm for his product and registered it as a trademark. 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". This trademark received notoriety when Scott Adams used the phrase in a Dilbert comic and 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".
Most formicarium types now available on the market are made of either acrylic (plastic) or are 3D printed. These are superior to the 'sandwich' type formicarium as there is no chance of tunnel collapse, and they are designed more specifically to keep queen ants with workers, whereas the 'Milton' type nests were only ever designed to house worker ants.
A 'sandwich' 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 behaviour can be studied. The fill material is typically soil, loam, sand, vermiculite, other mineral fragments or sawdust.
Formicariums containing gel are not recommended as they do not provide the ants with adequate housing, nutrition and in some instances, they can actually be poisonous to the ants.
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.
Containing ants inside a formicarium can be a challenge. Several substances are used to repel the ants, including anti-escape oil, petroleum jelly or liquid PTFE, which are applied to the side of the formicarium to prevent escape, as most ant species 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.
Some ant-keepers choose to put their ants into a 'test tube outworld' before a formicarium as this allows them to keep the colony comfortable and safe within their test tube whilst also allowing them a foraging area.
Laws on keeping ants
In the United States of America, it is usually illegal to ship live queen ants across state lines, and most 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. Most formicaria are designed to house queen ants, professional ant shops/suppliers usually sell their colonies with queens.
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