LOS ANGELES — Milton Levine, co-inventor of the classic Ant Farm toy that gave millions of youngsters a sneak peak into the underground lives of insects, has died at age 97.
Levine died of natural causes on Jan. 16 at an assisted-care facility in Thousand Oaks, his son, Steven, told the Los Angeles Times.
Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm has sold more than 20 million copies, but it sprang from humble origins.
Levine was watching ants during a Fourth of July picnic in Studio City in 1956 when he was reminded of collecting ants in jars as a child, Levine told the Times in 2002.
He recalled announcing: ‘‘We should make an antarium.’’
Levine and his brother-in-law, E. J. Cossman, came up with a transparent habitat — a green plastic frame with a whimsical farm scene — that allowed people to watch ants dig tunnels in sand between two plastic panes.
The ants were sent by mail. Collectors got a penny apiece to grab red harvester ants from the Mojave Desert.
‘‘Ants work day and night, they look out for the common good and never procrastinate,’’ Levine told the Times. ‘‘Humanity can learn a lot from the ant.’’
The toy was an instant hit. The product has remained essentially the same over the decades, although some small changes were made. The original glue was toxic to some ants, so it was replaced. The sand was switched to whitish volcanic ash in order to make the ants more visible.
‘‘The product has become a treasured part of American pop culture, having been recognized as one of the Top 100 Toys of the Century by the Toy Industry Association,’’ according to a statement from Westlake Village-based Uncle Milton Industries.
Levine’s company became a multimillion-dollar business and today offers a range of science and nature toys, including butterfly and frog habitats and Star Wars-themed items. It was sold to Transom Capital Group last year for tens of millions of dollars.