- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. (AP) — A billion ants carried Milton Levine’s three children through school. In fact, the pesky insects have been making him money for five decades.

“I have a lot of empathy for them,” said Mr. Levine, 92, the man behind the ant farm.

This year marks a half-century since Mr. Levine began selling his Uncle Milton Ant Farm — the sand-filled, clear plastic boxes through which ant voyeurs can watch the insects tunnel, eat and later die.

Mr. Levine said more than 20 million of his ant farms have been sold, with more than a billion ants shipped to customers eager to bring their toys to life.

“Never in my wildest dreams had I thought it would last 50 years,” said Mr. Levine, who retired 10 years ago and left his son, Steve, to run Uncle Milton Industries.

At a time when the hottest new toys are usually powerful electronic devices, updates on Mr. Levine’s classic in recent years have helped keep children interested in something that fascinated their grandparents.

“Things come and go, but the ant farm is very much like Barbie or G.I. Joe or Hot Wheels that have managed to survive,” said Chris Byrne, a New York-based toy consultant. “The novelty was creating a whole world that you can see.”

Uncle Milton Industries also sells a variety of educational toys, including remote-controlled tarantulas, an electronic planetarium and intricate habitats for frogs, hermit crabs and small fish.

Over the years, ants have had their digs upgraded with modules that can be linked to create expandable communities. One includes a tiny bungee rope, skating loops, race cars and a small stunt bike arena.

Sand has been replaced with cleaner, lighter volcanic gravel that makes it easier to see the ants. A model due out this Christmas uses green translucent gel that serves as food and water for the insects.

A medium-sized version of the classic design now retails for about $12, while the giant-sized one is about $20. A vial of replacement ants is available online for $3, plus shipping.

Mr. Levine has little doubt his family can keep selling the ant farm.

“I guess another 50 years, the way it’s going,” he said. “My great-grandchildren will probably do it.”

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