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When it comes to aquariums, betta fish are a popular choice for many people. There’s a good reason for this: in addition to their vibrant colors and large fins, they can be relatively easy to care for. When properly cared for, betta fish can live 3-5 years in captivity. But caring for a fish isn’t as straightforward as throwing a fish in a bowl of water- there’s a lot more to it. Although this post focuses on caring for betta fish, it has information which may be helpful for anyone looking to setup a freshwater fish tank!
My Experience with Betta Fish
I got my first betta fish when I was a sophomore in college. Long story short: I was very depressed at the time, and thought that having an animal that was entirely dependent on me would motivate me to get out of bed (it actually did, but that’s a topic for another day).
My initial setup may sound familiar to some of you: a small (<1 gallon) fish bowl with marbles and a couple of fake, plastic plants. I wasn’t great about changing the water as often as I should, and didn’t have any kind of filtration system. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find a picture of the initial setup
My junior year, I decided that my fish (Smaug) needed an upgrade. I switched to a 2.5 gallon filtered tank with live plants. I’ll be honest, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I lost the first couple of plants before finally getting a hornwort to survive. There was also a snail (named Gary). I honestly thought I was doing an amazing job at the time.
In hindsight, I know that I made a LOT of mistakes with Smaug, and I’ve always wanted another shot at a planted aquarium. I’m currently in the process of establishing a new 5 gallon planted aquarium (see details below). I am planning to get a betta fish once my aquarium and plants are fully established.
About Betta Fish
Like many houseplants, I’ve always found that understanding what a species is like in the wild makes it easier to care for in captivity.
Betta fish (aka Siamese fighting fish, Betta splendens) are freshwater fish native to southeast Asia, especially Thailand. They live in canals, marshes, rice paddies, and floodplains- shallow bodies of water with abundant aquatic and floating vegetation. Because these types of habitats are prone to low oxygen levels, betta fish have a labyrinth, a lung-like organ allows certain fish to gulp air from the surface. They often feed on zooplankton, crustaceans, and aquatic insect larvae.
In the wild, betta fish are drab colors: olive green, brown, and grey. The spectacular colors and fin shapes you see in the pet store are the product of selective breeding (aka artificial selection– a topic for another post).
Sad fact: they’re not doing great in the wild, primarily as a result of pollution and habitat degradation. Betta splendens is listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN red list.
Reproduction and Bubble Nests
If you’ve ever had a betta fish, you might be familiar with bubble nests– clusters of bubbles on the surface of the water. Bubble nests play an important role in reproduction. After mating, the male will place the fertilized eggs in a bubble nest, which he will guard carefully as the eggs incubate (also see this paper). The bubble nest helps keep the eggs aerated and protected from potential predators.
By understanding their ecology, we can glean a few things about caring for these fish:
- Males are aggressive and territorial: most betta fish that you see sold at the pet store are male, so it’s not necessarily a great idea for a betta fish to have a “tank mate.” You might be thinking, “but what if he gets lonely??” Let me share my experience: when I had Smaug, I impulsively decided to try adding an African dwarf frog to his tank. It was fine for a while, until the frog took a bite of Smaug’s fin. Thankfully I witnessed this happen (and was able to intervene), otherwise that frog probably would have died at Smaug’s hands (…er, fins). Male betta fish are known kill other bettas (including females). By contrast, if you want female betta fish, they can coexist in small groups of up to 10 females. There are some small fish species that can coexist in a community with a male betta (especially in a large tank with adequate hiding places). If you’re just starting out, it is probably easiest to treat bettas as a single-aquarium fish.
- They like warm water. These fish are from the tropics, so they’re adapted to warm water temperatures (between 75 and 82 degrees F). You’re probably going to want to get a water heater, otherwise your fish may be chronically stressed (which is bad for their immune system and overall health).
- They like to have shade. Most aquarium kits come with an LED light. While this isn’t a bad thing (especially if you’re planning to add live plants), a fish that is adapted for highly vegetated ecosystems isn’t gong to be crazy about being stuck in bright light all the time. In the wild, betta are accustomed to floating plants which they use for shelter from predators (amongst other things). In other words, without some kind of cover, your betta may be stressed, bored, or both. To that end, it’s good to provide some shade- especially in the form of floating plants or structures.
- They like vegetation. Because bettas involved in highly vegetated habitats, they enjoy getting to rest and move through vegetation. They do best in a tank with plenty of places to rest and hide (especially silk or live plants). Just make sure there is space for the fish to be able to swim around.
- They can get bored. In the wild, bettas spend time actively foraging, monitoring and defending their territory, etc. Giving them a sizable, complex tank (with plenty of vegetation and such) will help them stay occupied.
- They can tolerate harsh water conditions. The natural habitat of betta fish is prone to a) low oxygen and b) sudden, extreme changes in water availability, chemistry, and temperature. This is part of what makes them fairly decent pets- they won’t die immediately if the water quality isn’t perfect.
- They are mainly carnivorous. Their diet should consist mainly of animal protein. They aren’t adapted to digest carbohydrates like corn and wheat. It’s best to feed protein-based pellets, flakes, or invertebrates (such as brine shrimp, bloodworms, and daphnia).
- They are prone to over-eating. This isn’t necessarily unique to bettas- most wild animals will capitalize on food whenever they can, since they don’t necessarily know where their next meal is coming from. It is best to feed bettas at most once a day to avoid over-feeding.
- Bubble nests are a good thing. If you think about it, the production of a bubble nest by a male is an indicator that he thinks the habitat is suitable for reproduction. In other words, if he makes a bubble nest, that’s a sign you’re probably doing something right.
What You’ll Need to Care for Betta
Something that is important to remember about setting up a fish tank: you’re basically setting up an enclosed ecosystem. It can take time, but also requires some more considerations for the environment than other pets in enclosures.
Water Chemistry & The Nitrogen Cycle
Fish are different from most terrestrial animals- which typically eliminate nitrogenous (nitrogen-based) waste as aurea or uric acid. Instead, fish produce ammonia, a toxic compound which they excrete into the water. Under normal circumstances, ammonia would be a) diluted in large bodies of water, or b) be broken down by bacteria into nitrite. In a fish tank, ammonia can build up and reach dangerous concentrations for your fish. It is very important to monitor ammonia levels and treat with chemical products that remove ammonia if necessary. Establishing a healthy bacteria population can help, since they’ll convert ammonia into nitrite. Nitrite is *also* toxic, but can be converted into nitrate (not toxic) by bacteria. (The conversion of ammonia to nitrite to nitrate is generally referred to as the nitrogen cycle). With any fish tank, monitoring ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels is critical to the health of your fish.
- A 5+ Gallon tank. One of the biggest mistakes most people (including me) make with betta fish is using too small of an aquarium. Often, you see them in the pet store in small plastic cups and think that anything would be an improvement…right? In reality, male betta fish should have a minimum of a 5 gallon tank. This allows them to exhibit normal swimming and hiding behaviors. If you’re wanting a smaller tank, you might want to consider a different fish. Can they survive in a smaller tank? Sure. But they won’t be living their best life.
- A way to monitor ammonia and nitrite levels. I’ve been using API test strips as a quick way to check nitrite and nitrate levels while I get my tank set up. I also have a more precise freshwater test kit, which I plan to use as I get closer to adding my betta.
- A way to detoxify ammonia (either by establishing bacteria or using a product like Ammo-lock)
- Substrate (pebbles, marbles, etc.)- if you’re going with live plants, you’ll want to do some research on this one.
- Decorations– especially Shelter and/or silk plants. I can tell you from experience- decorations and plastic plants with sharp edges can tear betta fins. If you don’t want to go all-in on live plants, look for silk artificial plants instead.
- Protein-based food
- Dechlorinated water. In case no one has told you this: most of our tap water contains a small amount of chlorine. While this works fabulously to prevent transmission of water-borne diseases, it’s not great for fish. If using tap water, you’ll want to use a water conditioner that removes or neutralizes chlorine first.
Things that may be helpful:
- Quick start bacteria (to jump start bacteria in the nitrogen cycle)
- Water pump and filter. It’s not a requirement, but getting a water filter will reduce how often you need to do water changes. Most aquarium starter kits will come with a pump and filter.
- LED light
- Water heater. Okay, this isn’t absolutely a requirement- a betta can survive without one. But heaters aren’t terribly expensive, and they definitely make things better for your betta.
- Water siphon (this makes water changes SO MUCH EASIER)
Things which are totally extra (and not necessary):
- Live plants (and everything that goes with that- grow lights, fertilizer, root tabs, tools for pruning, etc.)
- Snails or other invertebrates
- Live prey and treats
If you’re just starting out with a fish tank, I would recommend starting with the essentials. You can always build up and upgrade over time as you gain confidence for caring for fish.
My New Setup
As I’ve mentioned, I don’t have a new betta fish (yet), but I thought it would be worth mentioning what I’m doing for my new tank.
For the tank itself, I decided to use the Marineland Portrait 5 Gallon Aquarium kit. It includes an aquarium, lid, LED light, filter, and pump. By choosing a tank with a relatively small base, we thought that the aquarium would be more versatile in our small apartment. We chose 5 gallons because I wanted to make sure it was big enough for a betta, but didn’t want to get over my head or take up too much space. I also like that the water pump and filter are hidden out of sight- it gives a very sleek, organized look.
When it came to substrate, I wanted to choose something that was designed to promote healthy bacteria growth. I ended up going with a white Imagitarium aquatic substrate (partially because that’s the best option I could find at my local pet stores because I wasn’t patient enough to wait for shipping). For decorations, I wanted a natural and organic look, so I went with a small piece of driftwood and lava rock. I have had some fungal growth on my driftwood- allegedly this is harmless, normal, and will go away with time, so I will address that in future updates.
I never used a heater in Smaug’s fish tank. This time around, I got a heater designed for fish tanks under 6 gallons which maintains my tank at 78 degrees F (this is good for my plants too, since most aquarium plants are also tropical and do best in warmer water temps). I strategically placed it behind the driftwood so that you can’t see it from the front of the tank.
Here’s a picture of my aquarium from my Instagram (if you click to show the second image, I’ve labeled each of the plants with their common names)
For the plants, I tried to do a bit of research (instead of grabbing whatever looked cool at the pet store, which is what I did the first time around). I opted to buy most of my plants in person, since I had concerns about shipping in the middle of winter. I also wanted to go with several different species just in case the conditions in my tank didn’t end up being suitable for one of them. Currently, my tank has the following plants:
- Java fern (Microsorium pteropus)- this was the one plant I knew my tank needed. These plants are fairly tall, have large leaves and are supposed to be beginner-friendly (aka easy to care for).
- Asian water fern aka el Nino fern (Bolbitis heteroclita): this was somewhat of an impulse buy. There weren’t a ton of healthy looking java ferns to choose from, so I did some quick Googling in the middle of Petsmart when trying to decide what other leafy plants I could get.
- Needle leaf ludwigia (Ludwigia arcuata)- I got this plant as a bit of a challenge- it needs moderate to high light, so it tends to be harder to care for than the other plants I chose. So far, it looks like they’re putting out new growth, so I’d say it’s going well!
- If you look closely at the setup of my tank, you’ll notice that the floating plants are on the opposite site of the tank from the ludwigia. This was deliberate- I wanted to make sure it was getting as much light as possible.
- Cryptocoryne wendtii “Green”: I wasn’t initially searching for this one, but came across it at Petco and decided to look it up. It is supposed to thrive in all light conditions and be easy to grow. (Can confirm- all 4 that I purchased have put out a fair amount of visible root growth in the last week.)
- Rookie mistake: I didn’t read the instructions carefully before I started setting up the tank. Unlike most other plants (whose roots should be buried in substrate), this plant does best when placed on top of rocks or other surfaces. Over time, its roots grow to hold it in place. Had I realized that before I began setting up my tank, I would have glued these plants to the driftwood and lava rock in my tank. Instead, I had to awkwardly wedge them between the rock and sides of the tank to hold them in place. They’ve come loose several times, so these aquascaping tools have definitely come in handy.
- Floating plants: I wanted to include floating plants for a couple of reasons: 1) to capitalize on the height of my tank, and 2) to create shade for the betta fish. My tank doesn’t have a ton of clearance between the water and lid, so I ended up choosing Amazon frogbit (Linobium laevigatum) and water spangle (Salvinia minima), which both have flat, lily-pad shaped leaves and long roots. These were the only plants that I ordered off the internet instead of purchasing in person, and I was really impressed with how healthy the plants were when I received them.
When it comes to floating plants, it’s not uncommon for them to completely cover the water surface of an aquarium, which can prevent other plants from getting enough light. As a way to balance the needs of my future betta with the other plants, I created and secured rings using airline tubing and suction cups that serve as enclosures for the floating plants. I can’t take credit for the idea- it’s based on something I saw in a YouTube video a while back, but it seems to be working extremely well.
One of the big changes I made this time around was adding a grow light (in addition to the LED light that comes with the tank). Not providing enough light is a common problem when it comes to planted aquariums, so getting an LED grow light isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Like all of my grow lights, this one is plugged in to a outlet timer (so I never have to worry about turning it on or off).
Because plants require additional nutrients, I’m fertilizing my aquarium twice a week with Aqueon aquarium plant food. When I initially set up the tank, I also used a handful of root tabs. I don’t think these were actually necessary for the particular plants that I purchased, but I figure that they couldn’t hurt (especially since I didn’t choose a substrate designed to provide nutrients to plants). I haven’t had any issues with algae yet, but I’ll update this post if/when I deal with that in the future.
I recently added a Nerite snail. There’s a few reasons I’ve decided to go with a Nerite snail- for one, they eat algae and waste (but not live plants). However, unlike other snails (which can be real aquarium pests), Nerite snails can only reproduce in brackish water (a mixture of salt and freshwater). In other words, one Nerite snail will stay one nerite snail. I’m 90% sure that Gary was a Nerite snail, and he and Smaug seemed to work very well as tank mates.
The tap water is EXTREMELY hard where I live. To try and balance this out, I’m alternating between distilled and (dechlorinated) tap water for water changes. I’m testing the water chemistry regularly using API test strips, which measure water hardness, pH, nitrite, and nitrate levels. I’ve been writing down the values each time I use the test strips so that I can monitor how the water is changing over time.
I plan on doing future updates about how to deal with aquarium algae, as well as my aquarium progress.
If you’re interested in starting a freshwater fish tank, I hope you found this post helpful! Let me know if you have any thoughts, insights, or questions in the comments.