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".
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.
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.
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