PASADENA, CA–Wonderco, a Pasadena-based educational-toy manufacturer, unveiled its new Playscovery Cove Ant Village Monday, touting the ant farm as a fun, interactive way to teach children ages 5 and up about unceasing, backbreaking toil and the cold, inescapable reality of death.
"Your little ones will have a front-row seat as worker ants labor, day in and day out, until they inevitably die of exhaustion, their futile efforts all for naught," Wonderco spokeswoman Joan Kedzie said. "A Playscovery Cove Ant Village, complete with stackable tiny ant barns, see-through 'Antway' travel tubes, and connecting 'Antports,' is your children's window into the years of thankless, grueling labor that await them as worker drones in our post-industrial society."
Billed as "the fun way to teach your kids to accept their miserable fate stoically," the ant farm retails for $14.95.
"The ants work very, very hard," said Youngstown, OH, 9-year-old Dylan Munns, who will someday work in the same grim Hormel meat-packing plant where his father now toils, as his father did before him. "They dig tunnels and carry heavy stuff all day long. Then they do it all over again the next day."
"They all look and act the same," said Newark, NJ, 10-year-old Darnell Booker, who, like Munns, will one day play the role of blue-collar worker in a society that rewards collectivism over individualism. "And there's no escape."
According to Kedzie, the ants, which come separately from the farm, are bred in New Mexico and mailed directly to Playscovery Cove Ant Village purchasers. Within days of arriving, a majority of the ants die at the hands of the small children responsible for regulating the temperature, humidity, and food supply in their delicate pseudo-ecosystem.
Even under optimum conditions, Kedzie said, the ants survive no more than 20 weeks in the farm. As a result, children are assured the chance to contemplate the inescapability of their own mortality.
"My ants came in the mail, and I put them in my ant farm all by myself," said Molly Whalen, 7, of Springfield, MA. "Some were stuck to the bottom of the tube, and I tried to make them move by dunking them in water, but mommy said they were dead forever."
It is normal for a certain percentage of the ants to perish in transport, Kedzie said.
"As it says in the official Playscovery Cove Ant Watcher's Guide, 'Don't worry if some ants didn't make the long and bumpy trip to your mailbox, kids, because we send along more than enough to get your ant farm up and running,'" she said. "'Besides, when some of your ants arrive dead, you'll be reminded that the spectre of death hangs over every creature on this Earth!'"
The lesson that the ants' labor is all in vain becomes clearer as time passes. During the first two to three weeks, the exclusively female worker ants are extremely productive, building an elaborate system of tunnels and hills amongst the miniature green trees and red plastic houses dotting the interior of the plastic dome. However, because neither male ants nor a fertile queen is provided with the Playscovery Cove Ant Village, making reproduction impossible, the farm is doomed to extinction from day one.
"The social structure of an ant colony is extremely complex, with individual members occupying such castes as soldier, messenger, and larvae attendant," said Penn State entomologist Dr. Gerald Dudek. "At some point, the Playscovery Cove ants become cognizant that their hierarchical structure has been stripped away, rendering their already near-meaningless existence totally futile. There seems to be a breaking point at about the 22-day mark when the dejected ants begin to die off en masse."
At this point, Dudek said, the ant farm enters what is known as the "death-pile phase." A spot is chosen by the worker ants to deposit their dead, and the burial mound steadily grows as the few remaining ants devote more of their time to gathering and burying others.
"It was really weird," said Jessica Lurman, 14, of Savannah, GA. "The ants were, like, really careful to put all the dead ants in this one big grave until there were, like, only four left. Then, the next morning, three of the four were lying with the others in the big pile, and the last one was dead over by the plastic farmhouse thingy. It must've died right after it buried the second-to-last ant."
Rick Brannan, CEO of Wonderco, said his company's ant farm was initially marketed as a fun way to teach children about life, not death.
"About a year ago, we re-examined our entire line of nature exploration toys–the ant farms, firefly lanterns, butterfly keepers, and ladybug jars," Brannan said. "What we found was surprising: Despite the fact that, 100 percent of the time, these toys resulted in the death of the living creatures caged inside, parents continued to buy them for their children. It was then that we realized that the suffering and death must be part of the attraction."
Added Brannan: "Here at Wonderco, arbeit macht fun!"