I indeed had this exact ant farm from Uncle Milton’s Toys in the early 1980’s; it was one of those things that Santa brought that my mother wasn’t altogether thrilled about. There were all sorts of admonitions Christmas morning about how I had to be extremely careful not to let the ants escape into our house.
I definitely remember the ants being smaller than those pictured below. They were little black beads that you had to squint to see — they seemed like baby versions of the larger subspecies skittering around everywhere outside. (Rural New York has some huge-ass ants, let me tell you. Part of the inviolable Kid Code was that you promptly stomped the big red ones, because those evil things could bite — even if it occurs to me now that none of us knew a single kid who’d been bitten.)
Nor did the ants in my ant farm build the kind of elaborate tunnel systems that you usually see pictured for ant farms. Mine were relatively unambitious.
I remember being told by my siblings that I had to handle the habitat very carefully, because if the tunnels collapsed, the ants would have heart attacks and die. I remember being blackly fascinated by that as a little boy — insects dying from frustration, like ruined architects. It seemed so bizarrely tragic. I have no idea if it was true or not. Maybe my mom just told my brother and sisters to say that so I would be extra careful not to break the thing, and inadvertently launch the Great Ant Jailbreak of 1981.
My ants eventually died anyway, curling up into static little black balls that looked like mouse droppings. I wasn’t too affected by it. You kinda don’t get attached to ants. I was far more saddened, for example, when the family dog tore through the Habitrail like goddam Mecha-Godzilla and ate Henry the Hamster.
But that’s a story for another day.