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Robin Brenner, Queen of the Ant Farm

June 22, 1989|DAVID WHARTON | Times Staff Writer

The red ants, they live in fields of sandy earth, in tunnels that lead every which way. The woman, she drives by and sees a field. She stops and takes her shovel to dig at the red ants.

Intricate patterns of tunnels lie just beneath the surface. Sometimes she finds small pockets, places where the ants have stored seed and other food.

"They even have graveyards underground," the woman says. "You'll hit one place, and they'll all be dead."

When she finds places where the ants are alive, when she reaches to gather them, they bite. They leave sores that swell and itch.

The woman has learned these things over many years because her father made her dig for ants when she was very young, taught her how to do it. Thirty years later, she is still digging for ants.

Millions of children across America, like so many ants scattered about, have never heard of Robin Brenner, but they're happier because she keeps digging.

Industrious Diggers

The 32-year-old woman gathers pogonomyrmex Californicus, a most industrious worker that is perfectly suited to live in those clear-plastic toys known as Uncle Milton Ant Farms. Pogis , as they are called, will toil in daylight, digging as children watch on.

Brenner is equally suited to her task of unearthing these insects. After many years, she can dig for them better than her father ever could.

A thin woman of blond hair and few words, she scours fields near Palmdale, Lancaster and San Bernardino, sometimes as far south as San Diego. She looks for small openings in the ground, tiny ants scurrying about. She sets to work like her late father, Kenneth Gidney, did.

Gidney started digging ants in 1959 after answering an Uncle Milton ad in the Los Angeles Times. He learned by trial and error, learned to slice through the dirt layer by layer, following the tunnels.

"He was a hillbilly from Tennessee, and he knew the ground," said "Uncle" Milton Levine, who invented the ant farm and has sold almost 10 million of the $8.99 toys in 33 years.

Gidney taught his offspring early on.

"We had 10 children and everybody did it," Brenner recalls. "We picked them into coffee cans with our hands. You'd get bit. It hurt."

Vacuuming Ants

Brenner--who took a decade off from ant collecting after she was married--is the only sibling who has carried on the tradition. But she doesn't make her three children do it, and she has added technology to the process. She fixed a car vacuum to a Tupperware bowl and now, after she digs up tunnels of the red ants, she vacuums them up.

In 10 hours' work, Brenner can collect 50,000 ants. Queen ants--larger, darker and winged--must be avoided. If they are included in the batch, the others won't dig. Brenner loads her bounty into a blue Blazer and drives them home to Phelan in San Bernardino County

Back at the house, the work is simpler.

The ants and dirt are poured onto large plates. For some reason of insect logic, the ants emerge from the dirt to crawl off the plates and Brenner puts them into large cans with a few drops of water to keep them alive.

During an average week, Brenner will collect and store some 200,000 ants. On Fridays and Saturdays, Brenner and a half-dozen hired workers put the ants, one-by-one, into vials. Thirty ants to a vial. No more, no less.

"Sitting there hour after hour, counting ants . . . it's tedious," she says. Brenner must constantly hire new workers because "they get bored counting the ants."

"Sometimes when I'm sitting up late at night, I think 'People don't know how hard this is. They don't know where these ants come from. They don't know who much sleep I'm missing."

The ants will live 10 days, 15 at most, in a vial. So each Sunday, Brenner delivers as many as 6,000 vials to Uncle Milton headquarters in Culver City. The vials are promptly sent to any kid with an Uncle Milton Ant Farm and the redeemable coupon that comes with it.

15 Million Ants

Levine said his company sends out 500,000 vials a year. That is 15 million ants' worth.

Two other people besides Brenner provide the insects, but Brenner remains, like her father, the prized ant collector around Uncle Milton Industries. She earns 35 cents a vial--about a penny an ant--and has paid for horses, a stable and a back yard riding arena with the profits.

"She does great," Levine said. "She did it since she was a kid and she knows the business."

Patience, she said, is the key. So she keeps at it.

During summer, when the ground is dry and the ants stray from their tunnels, she splits her time between collecting and reconnaissance, finding prime ant hills and marking them with white stakes.

During winter, when ants stay home and the earth is soft for digging, she returns to reap what she has sown.

"It's a never-ending process," she said.

True, there isn't much chance the supply will run dry.

As Levine put it: "There's a whole lot more ants out there. They'll never die. I don't think even an atomic bomb would put them to sleep."

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