Aquarium pests

An aquarium blighted by algae

How to control aquarium pests

An aquarium blighted by algae
An aquarium blighted by algae is an eyesore

Your aquarium is very similar to a carefully-tended garden in many ways, especially when it comes to unwanted pests that can accumulate, often rapidly, and begin causing damage to your delicate aquatic ecosystem. There are numerous types of aquarium pests and fish parasites that, if left unchecked, can seriously affect the health of your fish and even kill them.

Some of the most common pests that you will find in a typical tropical aquarium are as follows:

  • Algae – This is by far the most common pest, and it comes in many flavours: brown algae, hair algae, bubble algae, slime algae and more. Most of these are easily controlled by addressing your tank’s water quality and level of light exposure. Though not harmful to your fish, it is unsightly.
  • Snails – These small creatures can suddenly appear in your tank, where they will begin to eat your live plants and reproduce rapidly. If left unchecked, they will push your tank’s biological load far past its limit. They also eat fish eggs.
  • Hydra – Tiny freshwater polyps that like to feed on fish fry, Hydra can be very difficult to eliminate from your tank once an infestation begins. They can also irritate larger fish and are generally unwanted even if you do not have fry present.
  • planaria can be a nuisance and are an indicator of a dirty aquarium
    planaria can be a nuisance and are an indicator of a dirty aquarium

    Planaria – These creatures occur as a result of overfeeding or bad water management. Although not harmful to fish, though they may irritate the fish, they are unsightly and are a sign that the aquarium is not well cared for.

  • Floating Plants – If left to grow unchecked, floating plants can become a nuisance and need to be trimmed down to size.

How aquarium pests get introduced to your aquarium

The one major difference between your fish tank and a garden is the fact that your aquarium, at least in theory, is a closed ecosystem. You may be asking yourself how aquarium pests occur in such an environment: Most commonly, they are introduced as eggs, larvae or pupae on rocks, driftwood, and other aquarium decorations that have not been thoroughly cleaned.

The most effective way to prevent most of these pests from invading your aquarium is to carefully clean anything that you introduce to your aquarium. Snail eggs can ride in on live plants, or even with newly bought fish in some circumstances, which makes absolute prevention impossible. Pest control is occasionally still necessary, however. Another sure way is to absolutely avoid adding new objects, plants and fish to the aquarium.

What to do about aquarium pests in your tank

By far the most common pest is unwanted algae, which is relatively simple to control. New aquariums are particularly vulnerable to brown algae, which will usually go away on its own after the aquarium becomes properly established. Regular water changes and a strictly controlled lighting set up will discourage algae from growing, as will the introduction of plants to your tank.

Algae grows as a response to certain wavelengths of light. If your lights are old the wavelength changes, which may encouraging algae growth. If you continue to have problems despite using the correct lighting, it is a sign that your water is saturated with nutrients. A protein skimmer can help remove the organic waste that algae feeds on. A reverse osmosis water filtration system can remove nutrients before they enter the aquarium. Another option for immediate control is blocking out all light entering your aquarium for a few days.

Snails can be controlled by a variety of means. You can crush the shells yourself and let the fish eat their remains. Or add a snail-eating loach to your tank. You can also buy assassin snails which will hunt down and eat your snails reducing the number of snails. Another way to reduce the snail population is by adding copper to your water, which is a toxic substance for most aquatic invertebrates. Small copper coins can work, although they must be cleaned before introduction to the tank.

When it comes to hydra, the problem can get a bit more complicated. Chemical solutions exist, but can be harmful for live plants, fish and the beneficial bacteria in your filter. A better way to control these creatures is through the introduction of hydra-eating fish like three-spot blue gouramies. If that is not an option, you will have to cook them.

hydra catching daphnia. hydra is a threat to fry
hydra catching daphnia. hydra is a threat to fry

Hydra will die at a temperature greater than 40°C, which is less than what would kill your beneficial bacteria, so if you temporarily remove your fish and raise the heat to this temperature for a few hours, your tank will be free of these aquarium pests. You can then turn the heat back down, vacuum your gravel and perform a 50% water change to clear the tank. Once the water temperature is back to normal, you can re-introduce your fish safely.

Planaria are often much more difficult to contain. They will generally have to be physically removed or starved through decreased feeding. These worms can regenerate when physically damaged, making them particularly problematic in large numbers. Many aquarists find that chemical solutions are the only effective solution when dealing with a planaria infestation. However, some gouramis, guppies betta, mollies and kribensis sometimes eat them.

Controlling your plants’ growth

When it comes to controlling the growth of plants in your tank, you will need to take a more careful approach since these are organisms you want in your tank, but at levels and sizes that your aquarium can support. Plants can be particularly troublesome since an improperly trimmed stem will simply grow back, often bigger than before.

The key to proper plant control is to use specialized aquascaping tools to trim your plants. Aquascaping scissors allow you to use the correct technique when trimming your plants: cut stems should be sliced at a diagonal angle that prevents the plant from simply regenerating the stem. This is very difficult to do with regular scissors, but very easy with a pair designed specifically for aquascaping.

Fish parasites and diseases

Many of the more common aquarium pests take the form of fish parasites that infect your fish and make them sick. These can seriously affect the health of your fish and often need to be addressed using a separate quarantine tank in order to separate the infected fish from the rest of your tank. Common fish parasites include:

  • Ick(ich) – This is a very common problem for fish that are stressed as a result of rapid changes in water quality or temperature. Ick infections make your fish look like it has tiny white grains of sand covering its body. Commercial cures are available in tablet form or liquid form. However, they don’t always work because some strains of ick have become immune. Raising the temperature for a week and dosing the tank with salt usually works.
  • Gill Flukes – These tiny flatworms infect the gills of your fish, and can be identified with symptoms similar to ick but with erratic movement and eye spots on the scales. Flukes cannot be seen with the naked eye. Often encouraged by poor water quality or overcrowded tanks, gill flukes must be treated immediately with anti-parasitic aquarium tablets.
  • Water Lice – If your fish seem to have pale, tiny eight-legged crabs on their bodies, you are looking at fish lice. These aquarium pests need to be physically removed from the fish and the wound treated with an antiseptic such as iodine. Another common solution is bathing freshwater fish in a salt bath of 35 ppt seawater for 5 minutes every day until the parasite falls off.
  • Gill Mites – These microscopic creatures can be identified if your fish is gasping at the water’s surface and has partially opened gill covers showing inflammation or infection. They must be treated with anti-parasitic treatments in tablet form, with water changes in between each treatment.

Hopefully, you will never have to deal with any of these aquarium pests or fish parasites. But, you should always be prepared to put a plan into action as soon as any of these pests are first spotted, before they cause problems to your plants or fish.

Once a problem has been cured, that is not the end of the matter. It is vital that you correct the conditions that caused the problem in the first place. Overfeeding, poor water quality, lighting problems, overcrowding are conditions that must be recognised and corrected so that the problems do not re-occur.

 

The plantless aquarium

Upright driftwood and stones on gravel base

How to approach plantless aquarium design successfully

Upright driftwood and stones on gravel base
Upright driftwood and stones on gravel base

Plantless aquarium design can be very enticing both for beginning aquarists and for more experienced ones, but making your plantless aquarium a success depends on a number of key factors that need to be kept in mind during your aquarium set up and thereafter as well. Plantless aquariums are often considered barren-looking by hobbyists in the aquarium trade, but with the right aquascaping approach they can offer their owners a uniquely serene, zen-like sense of beauty.

There are two essential prerequisites to successful plantless aquarium design: handling the technical aspects of healthy water conditions and filtration without the plants’ help, and designing your aquarium with an eye for sublime beauty in such a way that you do not feel the need to hide your aquascape behind plants.This requires maximising the artful use of other aquarium materials. The first order of business is making sure that your technical needs are taken care of.

Step one: compensating for a plantless tank with filters and algae control

The first two issues that you should consider with plantless aquarium design are the important role that plants play in the nitrogen cycle and in algae control. Fortunately, both of these issues can be resolved reasonably well through careful planning. Plants can make some aspects of your aquarium easier to take care of, but in the long run you can enjoy a successful tank without them as well.

entangled driftwood on gravel base
entangled driftwood on gravel base

When it comes to filtration, you want to maximize the ability for beneficial bacteria to grow in your tank since you will not have the benefit of ammonia-absorbing plants to rely on. This could mean increasing the size of your filter, using a rocky gravel substrate, or both. Gravel will provide additional surface area for the necessary bacteria to grow, which can help out immensely.

Gravel must be more carefully chosen to add visual interest. There are various grain sizes of gravel to consider and many colours to choose from. The texturing effect and colour of the gravel compared to the rocks and the fish should provide a stunning contrast.

Sand is also a worthwhile substrate to consider, although maintenance and cleaning is generally easier with gravel. Most fish tend to prefer sand as a more natural substrate and some require it in order to begin breeding and spawning. In either case, your substrate should be rather thin, since you do not have to worry about giving anchor to any plant roots.

discus in an amazon biotope with driftwwod to simulate roots
discus in an amazon biotope with driftwwod to simulate roots

Also, without the delicate needs of plants to worry about, you can set up your filter for more water flow. This can help ensure that the tank water does get thoroughly filtered without the need for plants, and will help with algae control as well.

Dealing with algae in a plantless tank

Despite all the time you spend on making your plantless aquarium design look great, if you leave your tank near a sunny window for a week you can expect a full-blown algae bloom to occur. In order to protect your tank from algae, you will need to maintain a consistent algae cleaning and light reduction program. Using a UV sterilizer may help here.

Prevent algae here

Even without a UV sterilizer, frequent water changes and careful monitoring of your water’s nutrient levels will be important to avoid encouraging algae growth. You can also invest in algae controlling chemicals, but these should be considered a last resort, as they may affect the fish and may not be necessary in the long term, unless your algae situation really gets out of hand.

large stones on sand make a simple but pleasant design
large stones on sand make a simple but pleasant design

Paying attention to your lighting when planning your plantless aquarium design is important for this reason. Without plants, you have no need for specialized halide lights and indeed this kind of lighting will encourage algae blooms to occur regularly, putting your fish in danger and turning your beautifully serene tank into an unsightly green cesspool. If you notice algae getting out of hand, you can always “black-out” the aquarium for a few days. Then resume lighting at reduced levels and duration.

Low maintenance floating plants

If you wish to forgo the purist approach then the use of floating plants may represent a great way to get the benefits of plants without actually planting anything. Some aquarists may consider this cheating, and no longer call the aquarium a strictly plantless one, but the decision is yours. Considering the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, if you feel satisfied with using floating plants then it is an acceptable and low maintenance way to enjoy your tank.

Step two: making your plantless aquarium design look great

Once your aquarium is functioning smoothly without plants, it is time to consider how you can set up the tank to stop it looking so stark and barren.

The key to aquascaping successfully, is in paying more attention to your tank’s hardscape- the rocks, driftwood, sand or gravel and any ornaments that you use to give your tank its own unique identity. Providing a rocky background can be a great way to bring character to an aquarium. Many aquarists use plants to hide the unattractive equipment of their aquascaping job. In a plantless aquarium this is not an option.

Using rocks as decor

steeped rocks can be an effective way to create height
steeped rocks can be an effective way to create height

Rocks can make an excellent foundation for a plantless aquarium design, and owners of Malawi biotopes have been using them for years to great effect. Most Malawi biotopes are plantless by design because rocks are an integral part of the Malawi lake ecosystem. When setting up your tank using rocks, you will want to use many different shapes and sizes of rock, to mimic a natural looking environment.

Malawi aquarists emphasise height in their use of rocks. Not just selecting tall pieces of rock but actually stacking rocks on top of each other to achieve height. However, care must be taken that such structures are safe. Falling or toppling rocks can crack the glass and even land on fish.

Often, a rock-based plantless aquarium design will feature a very large centrepiece of some kind. A particularly ancient-looking stone of great size can lend an air of gravity to the entire tank and give you that zen-like sense of the sublime that makes plantless aquariums so special. Multiple rock formations can also be very interesting, especially in carefully laid scenic patterns.

various striated rocks and pebbles on gravel
various striated rocks and pebbles on gravel

Rocks, stones and pebbles can be constructed upon sand to make a desert like aquascape reminiscent of a real life desert. Stones and pebbles can also be used to form cave structures, valleys and hill formations. The possibilities are endless.

Using rocks in your aquarium here

Making the most of driftwood

Driftwood is another incredibly popular element of plantless aquarium design. By layering choice branches of driftwood throughout your aquarium, you can achieve a natural beauty that reminds you of the jungle without needing any distracting greenery getting in the way. Amazon biotopes will frequently use driftwood and sometimes are plantless.

The key with layering your driftwood successfully is in finding suitably gnarled pieces of it. Straight driftwood can be used to great effect sometimes, but is better to used gnarled old branches that curve and twist. They can be used throughout the tank in an inspiring way. Rather than going for a centrepiece like you would with rocks, often the best approach for driftwood is to distribute your pieces naturally throughout the tank in order to mimic nature.

Other decorative items

Of course, there is no need to feel like you are limited to choosing between driftwood and rocks. These are just two of the most popular decorative items commonly used to great effect in world-class plantless aquariums. For your own plantless aquarium design, your imagination is the limit. Some aquarists enjoy putting model miniatures in their tanks, and others decorate theirs with hand-blown glass.

If you have an interesting, out-of-the-box idea for your plantless aquarium, you are encouraged to explore that idea. Many beautiful aquaria have been created around this concept: take that idea, put it in a box, fill the box with water and fish and enjoy your own unique plantless aquarium design. Examples being say stonehenge, the parthenon, the pyramids or Atlantis.

Floating plants in a bare bottom tank

floating plants bare bottom tank

How To Use Floating Plants For A Bare Bottom Tank

water lettuce in aquarium with dangling roots
water lettuce in aquarium with dangling roots

The use of gravel or sand as a bottom-lining substrate for aquariums has been a staple of aquarium culture for years, but recently interest has sparked in using floating plants for a bare bottom tank design. These tanks eliminate the need for expensive and time-consuming gravel cleaning and make it easier to control the nutrient flow within the water of the tank.

Bare bottom tanks eliminate the possibility of uneaten food and fish waste collecting underneath the gravel or sand substrate, where it will rot and pollute the water. Bare bottom tanks also helpfully allow for higher water flow rates. Once the nitrogen cycle complications are taken care of by having your tank cycled properly, using floating plants in your setup can help you enjoy the benefits of plants in your aquarium without the disadvantages of gravel.

The primary arguments against floating tanks are that they tend to look unnatural and can be difficult for certain species to adapt to. The lack of plants can leave some species nervously trying to find a hiding place. Also, without a substrate to hold onto, waste can collect in the water if not vacuumed and filtered often enough.

See also plantless aquarium

Why Use Floating Plants For A Bare Bottom Tank?

frogbit covering the aquarium surface
frogbit covering the aquarium surface

While most of the beneficial bacteria in a fish tank make their homes on the aquarium filter, where a continuous flow of oxygenated water let them filter the waste and complete their part of the nitrogen cycle, the remaining nitrate still needs to be accounted for. Thankfully, these plants tend to absorb more nitrate than other plants, and a healthy population of these plants will help reduce the need for constant water changes.

As an added bonus, most free-floating plants are very easy to care for and get along magnificently with a wide variety of fish. A few examples of useful floating plant species that should be considered for any bare bottom aquarium are as follows:

• Tropical Hornwort. Ceratophyllum Submersum is a phenomenally easy, fast-growing floating plant that thrives in waters with a pH range between 5-8, at a temperature of 10-30 degrees Celsius. Hornwort is one of the easiest plants to manage: if you toss it into the water, it will situate itself naturally and need little-to-no care after that.

dwarf-water-lettuce
dwarf-water-lettuce

•Dwarf Water Lettuce Pistia stratiotes is an easy care fast growing small sized floating plant that does well under bright light. It reproduces by sending out runners that create baby plants that are easily separated at any time. Remove discolored or yellow leaves which will induce new growth.

• Marimo. Aegagropila linnaei, also known as Marimo, which is Japanese for “ball seaweed” is a rootless algae colony that can attach itself to rocks or other tank décor. Marimo can also float around freely within the tank. This particular plant is highly prized for its unique, beautiful appearance: small-to-medium balls of green plant material that make any tank look superb.

• Java Moss. Taxiphyllum barbieri is not actually a free-floating plant at all, and it will attach itself to just about anything within the tank. One of the best ways to realise the use of this plant as a free-floater is to give it a thin wire net to attach to on the interior of the tank and then let it attach to that. It is a popular choice because it provides food to newborn fry.

• Anacharis. Egeria densa is a very hardy plant that grows extremely quickly in a wide variety of conditions. These plants can grow as rooted plants or be kept as floating ones. In both conditions, they provide very useful benefits to the quality of the water as well as the appearance of the tank.

Adding in a healthy number of these floating plants can help structure your bare bottom tank and give you a clean, easily maintained tank without you needing to worry about periodically cleaning the accumulated dirt beneath the gravel or sand.

How to make floating plants look great in a bare bottom tank

floating plants cover fish
floating plants cover gold barb fish

One of the most common arguments against using a bare bottom tank is made by aquarists who do not like the unnatural look of a bare bottom tank. Thankfully, floating plants such as the ones named above can help to create a luxurious-looking underwater environment in an otherwise barren tank.

Since there is little-to-no substrate along the bottom surface of the tank, it is likely that waste will collect along the bottom. Normally, this requires frequent, simple cleaning with an aquarium vacuum cleaner. Even with this solution, however, It is recommended that bare bottom aquarists paint the bottom of the tank a dark colour such as brown or black.

Bare bottom tank aquarists have to clean their tanks less often than those with substrates lining the bottom of their tanks. Many of these aquarists, however, report that waste collects so quickly that they rarely get to enjoy a perfectly clean bottom unless they use a powerful mechanical filter that will collect up the waste matter. Adding a layer of paint to the bottom can help maintain a clean appearance in combination with beautiful and well-kept floating plants for a bare bottom tank.