What Time Is It?!?

Can you believe how pretty 6AM can look?As I start this post, it’s 0635AM, also known as, literally, 0-dark-thirty. (I took this picture through a window, so no, we aren’t on a planet with three moons, but it’s too cold to go outside).

I’ve already fed Ainsley, unloaded the dishwasher and cleaned the kitchen, washed and folded three loads of laundry, started working on a project for work, and, yes, all of this was made possible by my first task: I made a pot of coffee.

It doesn’t hurt that I went to bed at ten. On a Friday! In years past that would have meant I had a migraine or something. But I’m so behind on work that I must do chores and business stuff while Ainsley sleeps or we’ll have no quality or quantity time at all this weekend.

Yesterday was awful from a work perspective. I started early- 0530AM- so I could finish early. At 0620PM, I stopped for the day. I was interrupted by twenty different things, all spurred by the phone call of my Montessori school’s teacher calling to say she would be late (don’t get me started). She had a sick kid so I didn’t want to chance her bringing the flu to the student! Add to that stress that I realized that I forgot my computer keycard at work, thus could not connect to work. I worked on offline documents for as long as I could but had to drive to work to find the card so I could drive back home to work from home. It felt as dumb as using a wet towel to dry off.

I could keep griping, but I’m choosing the other road. My husband had a planned vacation day to work on household projects. Due to the lack of a teacher for Ainsley, he and I had to switch our schedules and decide who would do what all day. I’m so behind on work that I basically demanded he drop everything (wow, what a nasty attitude).

Feeding the hungry fish together- my crewHe didn’t complain. He spent almost all day with Ainsley, and not begrudgingly. I would take work breaks and walk through to see wonderful moments. He played with her, he read her books, he worked on physical development with her. I heard him talking to her about which organic fruits and vegetables had just arrived at our front door. He even made a delicious pasta primavera for us, stirring the pots at arm’s length to keep the heat away from Ainsley.

After her bedtime, we gave Mr. Kitty (Baja) his fluids, let Mini out for some play time, I brushed Sunny’s teeth and gave Silo fresh carrot tops, and we watched a show together. Our house is developing a good rhythm. Finally.

Well anyway. I have less than an hour left before most of the house’s sleeping creatures stir. Off to do some work projects.

Praying Mantis Named Yorick

My husband told me he found an enormous praying mantis on our driveway the other day. “It’s about to die,” he said. “It’s barely moving.” He moved it from the driveway to the shelter of the porch. It didn’t move for 24 hours, so he brought it inside to show me the beautiful but dead insect.

“Oh *&#@!,” Carlton eloquently said. The “dead” bug started moving in his hand! We realized that it was moving more due to being in the warm of indoors. But what to do? Keep it? It was surely dying due to old age and the climate combined. We put a plastic box over it and decided to decide after watching a movie.

We came upstairs to Sunny barking at something. The mantis had escaped the container and was on the carpet, flaring its wings at the little beast barking at it. We rushed to help the mantis with her forearms tangled in carpet fibers. I found a spare aquarium (no surprise there) and we protected the mantis from our many predator pets. Carlton made a dish of water for her and I googled what mantises eat. But where to find live bugs this time of year?

Amy’s house after dinner! We’d been at a fundraiser dinner and talked about the mantis on the way home. The best part was that none of the three of us questioned the silliness of caring about feeding a dying wild bug. We gathered carcasses and even a live spider or two into a bag.

We put it all in the aquarium, and while the mantis turned her head to look at us inquisitively, she displayed no interest in food. I even used a chopstick to nudge a live spider under her nose. She looked at it, but made no move at all. She was almost dead. As expected, she died within three days. She didn’t eat or drink anything. She knew it was the right time to go, and she died without being squished by a car or something.

I’ve always had a soft spot for living things, especially sentient ones. When I was a child, my parents bought me Pets in a Jar and I devoured the book. Even bugs I never collected were fascinating. I gained so much respect for caring for them and knowing what they needed (that book even made me think planaria infecting my aquaria were cool).  I still have the book.  My dad and I looked at earthworms in his garden, watching them wriggle in my hands before I set them free.

My subscription to Ranger Rick ensured a steady stream of new creatures and new knowledge.  I loved them all- even slugs, especially spiders- and I still don’t kill spiders in my home.  And not only is all of this true, it’s one of the things I really like about myself.

So alas, poor mantis, we barely knew ye, but we enjoyed meeting you and hopefully you enjoyed having food and water as you shuffled off this mortal coil.

Shakespeare + bugs.  Up next: Britney haiku.

Bristleworm and Snail Friends

Arrow points to the bristlewormWhile watching the reef aquarium with A tonight, I watched as the enormous turbo snail padded along the front glass.  He’s grown a lot since he was added to the tank; he’s at least 2.5 inches across.  Then I noticed- there is a small bristle worm living in his shell!  I tried to take a picture that would really show the two, but my stupid camera would not focus on the right spot and by the time I went to read the owner’s manual, the snail had shuffled off elsewhere.  Too bad, or I would have found a cutsie interspecies picture page and posted it.

Hopefully the tank’s not too infested; bristleworms can either be harmless or can grow to be a giant nuisance.  Speaking of infestations, my tank is so full of Aiptasia that I’m considering giving up on keeping any other sessile animals.  The remedies I have tried are either ineffective or they require injecting each anemone.  Anyone with an infestation can tell you that it would take hours to inject all 300+ of them, and who knows if it will work, or just release stinging cells into the water and poison the tank.

Buying a copperband butterfly (Chelmon rostratus) to eat them just seems irresponsible, as the butterflies often die soon after their natural food is gone.  I recently read that the seagrass filefish (Acreichthys tomentosus) is hardier, plus they are such unusual fish.  I can’t find anyone who sells them though.

Does anyone have any bright ideas?

Weight Updates

I waited as long as I could to weigh Ainsley again.  She sure looked bigger and fatter, but hey.  I’m a scientist and I need data.

Her weight gain was great!  She’s been gaining almost at the ideal pace of one ounce per day.  Like I said, I was pretty sure she was on the right track, but data is what put my mind at ease.

The new bottle is what did it.  She now eats like a normal baby and she naps better too.  I hate to think how hard it must have been for her to be getting sugary milk instead of the high fat milk she needed.  I would never have made it this far without the support of the Clarian North Lactation Consultants.

Ainsley and Daddy at the Reef AquariumI wish I’d been carrying my real camera when I saw this shot.  She already loves to watch the aquariums in the house and her favorite book right now is The Biotope Aquarium.  I love that Ainsley’s first words might be “Zebrasoma flavescens.” Carlton has really been a great dad, too.  He doesn’t view her as a chore; he sent me to bed at 7:30PM the other night and took care of her.  I had a terrible migraine yesterday and he took care of both his girls all day with no complaints.  What a great guy.

Oh, and 26 to go for me.  The pounds aren’t melting off anymore, so the weight I’m carrying is that excessive amount because I was so hungry in the beginning of the pregnancy.  I can’t wait to be rid of this artery-clogging flabbbb!

Betta Boy

Some may flippantly flush fish down the commode at the first sign of trouble, but I think they are missing something.

Betta boy lives in a heated, 2.5 gallon planted aquarium with driftwood and snails. Six months ago, the Betta splendens in my bathroom developed swim bladder disease for unknown reasons. That meant that this fish- who must come to the surface periodically for oxygen- would have to struggle to the surface every time.

I struggled myself. Euthanasia? Was his life worth living? I decided that it was not my call. So every day, I cupped my hand under him and helped him to the surface to eat. Sometimes I did this twice daily. He rebounded, swimming to the surface on his own and regaining weight. I lowered the water level enough that he could perch on the drifwood to breathe and to eat. Twice I thought I was going to lose him; he stopped wanting his pellets and dried bloodworms. I enticed him with brine shrimp fed from a dropper, and he started eating again. Not just eating, but swimming and fluttering around.

Lately he’d been slipping again. I briefly thought of euthanasia again. I simply couldn’t do it, as long as he was still eating, undiseased, and seemed comfortable. I added brine shrimp daily in addition to his other foods. He nibbled, but didn’t really eat.

He wasn’t perched on his driftwood this morning. As I sat brushing my teeth and waiting for him to swim up from the plants, I worried that he was gone. I worry this every morning that he doesn’t immediately swim to greet me. But this time I was right.

Did I make the right decision, to let him die naturally when I could have ended it the minute he became disabled? I don’t know. Animals feel (and deal with) pain so differently from humans. Warm-blooded companion animals live with horrendous cancers with no whining. My own dog’s knee was hopelessly torn, but other than her limp, her personality did not change. Cold-blooded pets live with even worse diseases; I’ve seen fish covered in fungus but still alive. Does that mean that their quality of life is acceptable? At what point is it no longer good for them, and we are only easing our own pain by postponing their death? We’ll never know.

I do know that my Betta boy lived a relatively long and mostly happy life, almost five years old this summer. I’ll miss him.

Setup Phase I: Equipment

As usual, I’m horribly late in posting. Aren’t blogs supposed to be real time? A-hem.

I have had an aquarium in my kitchen several times. I always loved it because I could enjoy my hobbies of cooking and aquatics at the same time. Not cooking my aquatics though…

However, the latest iteration was a u-g-l-y 15 gallon tank with bare glass bottom and live plants in pots or rooted to driftwood. It housed four female bettas and had no filtration and 13 watts of light. The plants- even the Java fern (Microsorum pteropus)- struggled with less than one watt per gallon. As the kitchen is such a central room of my home, I wanted to upgrade.

I have researched this aquarium for over a year. I used web resources such as the krib and also trolled for the right online retailer. I’ve become completely disillusioned by my local fish store (LFS) and its poor treatment of fish and total lack of knowledge about live plants. I used to work in an aquarium store and underwater gardening was my specialty. It was time for me to design a beautiful, yet easy to maintain aquarium.

Part of my integrated approach was to purchase high quality equipment at the most reasonable prices. I needed:

aquarium_empty.JPGThe water box. While Oceanic is the best quality brand, none of their standard sizes would fit in the kitchen location. With a clearance of just 18 inches, a “show” style aquarium would not work. I started looking at custom aquariums…groan. The quotes ranged from $350-$480, with custom crating and shipping driving the total to over $800. No thank you. I started looking into breeder style non-custom tanks immediately. Luckily, I found the perfect solution: an All-Glass 30 gallon breeder. Breeder style tanks not only have a low profile, the dimensions provide more surface area for oxygen exchange and more substrate area for the plants I wanted and the added benefit of more area for fish territories. Add to those benefits that the lighting would not have to penetrate as deeply, and quickly this setup is more and more attractive. Total cost (ordered through LFS): $75.

back_stripping.JPGThe canopy. A standard canopy would not work for me. I wanted more work surface area and more customization. A standard canopy seam would be right in the middle of my light fixture and would be unopenable for feeding/maintenance without removing the entire light hood. I ordered plastic back stripping from an online aquarium supply house and two custom glass pieces from a local hardware store. Custom glass is often cheaper than the standard canopy, and in this case allowed me to decide the width of each piece. This picture shows the back stripping with CO2 tubing and filter inlet/outlet. Scrap plastic was fitted around the filter inlet/outlet to ensure no fish could jump through the small opening (it happens!). Plastic parts: $19; glass: $14.

lighting_installation.JPGThe lighting system. Most aquatic plants demand high lighting. But lighting systems lighting_ballast.JPGcost hundreds; the canopies, hundreds more. A typical online retailer sells the combo for $350-$490 for a setup of my size. The internet came to my rescue by way of ahsupply.com. They sell hoods for a fraction of the cost of brand-name enclosures. I also ordered a 96-watt bright kit to provide the three watts per gallon my plants demanded. For about $100 and a little electrical work, I had a nice looking lighting system. Special thanks to Carlton who did the electrical while I completed the lighting/cord/hood installation itself.

hood_problem.JPGTo the right, you can see the quality of the hood construction…and the fact that despite all my planning, the aquarium was 1/16 inch too tall!! Special thanks to my Dad for planing it to the right height. It’s a family project by now…..




co2_in_cabinet.JPGCarbon dioxide (CO2) injection. Except for slow growers like Anubias spp. in low light situations, CO2 can be the limiting reagent for healthy plant growth. The most accurate way to dose CO2 is with co2_into_tank.JPGcompressed gas and a bubble counter/timer system. These systems run about $250 for the cheapest. Even the unproven carbon-block systems run about $150. For smaller tanks like mine, a yeast reactor would do fine. Basically, the yeast converts sugar to alcohol and CO2 and the gas is held underwater for maximum saturation. I decided to use two reactors because DIY co2_bubble_counters.JPGsystems have a spike of effectiveness; two smaller systems help control variability. I purchased two $10 CO2 traps to hold the gas underwater (shown at right). Everything else, such as the yeast culture jars, yeast starters, corn sugar, and stoppers, I filched from my brewing hobby. (side note: see, Oz, I actually am brewing beer in my aquarium!)



Heater. This is the part of the setup I woefully ignored as easy. Substrate heating was immediately discarded as an option. They are expensive (and cheaper DIY types are a huge pain to assemble) and if they malfunction in an established aquarium, I’d be left with having to use a submersible heater anyway. I now have two 50 watt titanium heaters with auto shutoff if they malfunction. $39 and well worth it. Don’t learn this the hard way: buy two smaller heaters so if one malfunctions, consequences are not so dire.

Filter. Here I knew I wanted to spare no expense. I actually looked for less expensive options and found online reviews balking at the lack of reliability of most brands. I looked at hang-on-tank models but disliked the low water movement and high filter cost. My experience in the aquatic store had shown that for me, a canister Fluval was the best combination of quality and reliability. Drs. Foster and Smith was my choice of online retailer; not only were prices comparable, they have reviews of each filter by customers and a very nice grid to aid with filter selection. Cost: $95 (groan). When choosing a filter of any type, be sure to calculate annual filter media costs to see if the filter is really a bargain.

lighting_in_place.JPGTotal equipment cost: $354 plus shipping costs of $25 total $379. Average annual upkeep for lighting (bulb), CO2(sugar), filter(carbon only, wash other media): $117.

I was happy with the total cost, made my purchases, and moved to Phase II.

Farewell to my Fishies

Pack of Pequeninas- Hungry as Usual!This was supposed to be the post where I talk about my brand new planted aquarium.  I’ve been dreaming of this aquarium for years, spent months in planning the plants/substrate/fish, and have spent the last couple of weeks on actually making my dream a reality.

Saturday, I moved my four female bettas from the bare glass, 15-gallon, filterless tank to a beautiful 33-gallon tank full of plants and of baby snails for them to eat.  I was extra careful to test the water parameters so the fish wouldn’t be stressed by the move.  They settled into their new digs in about five minutes and started begging for food!

I’ve had the pequeni?as (a play on a word from Speaker for the Dead) for two years.  We’ve enjoyed watching them and their little hungry personalities, always crowding the upper corner of the tank because that’s where food can be found.  They begged for food more than dogs!!

Female bettas are overlooked as a pet in favor of the longer finned, sometimes more brightly colored, male bettas.  But females can be kept in a group if suitably acclimated and they do not display as much aggression to other community fish.  On the flip side, they are less bullied because they do not have the long, flowing fins to be nipped.  By Sunday night, three of the females were ripe with eggs and two had on breeding stripes.  This indicates that they were adapting extremely well to their new home.

After work on Monday, I came home to pack a dinner and let the dog go outside.  Standing next to the aquarium, I could feel it radiating heat.  With sickness, I felt the glass.  It was hot to the touch.  The water was over 110 degrees F.  The heater had failed in the “on” position and was cooking the tank’s inhabitants.  Panicked, I looked in the aquarium.  All four ni?as were long dead, suffocated by the heat.  The plant leaves had already started to melt.

I spent the evening doing water changes with cold water and ice, finally pulling the temperature back to 76 F.  I couldn’t stop crying about my poor fish and the horrid way they died.  I wrapped them in a pink satin ribbon and disposed of their little bodies (flushing them is a very irresponsible thing to do with a fish; it can spread disease in local water systems).

Lesson learned: I’d read that it was better to have two small heaters in a tank than one larger one.  That way if one fails “on,” it takes longer to reach fatal conditions and it can be stopped.  I’ve ordered two new, smaller heaters that include failure switches so the heater can’t fail “on.”

I’m sure I will stop feeling sad sometime soon, but it’s hard to imagine for now.  Luckily I snapped a couple of pictures of the fish in their new home just a day before they died.  I’m also lucky that this happened in a tank with four fish- not 20, like I have planned for that tank.

Goodbye, sweet ni?as.

Down with Elmo: Cruelty to Goldfish Dorothy

Cruelty to GoldfishPlease be prepared, as this is going to be an angry rant.

I love Sesame Street.  I love its multiculturalism, its learning opportunities, and its special place in my heart.  However, I’m pretty upset with one thing about the otherwise adorable Elmo: his goldfish.

In each episode, a baby goldfish is housed in a bowl.  They stick all kinds of stuff in the bowl and who knows if they’ve bothered to see if it will be toxic to the fish.  I’ll bet that “Dorothy??? has died numerous times of the torture of the goldfish bowl.

You see, goldfish bowls are terrible for the poor fish forced to live there.  Goldfish are thick-bodied fish who eat a lot and produce a LOT of waste.  A goldfish in a bowl quickly pollutes the water.  The fish is then forced to breathe its own concentrated waste.  If you think that bowl smells bad above water, imagine trying to breathe below the surface.

Goldfish need a lot of water per fish.  There are lots of good sources  for goldfish information, and they all say pretty much the same thing.  Baby goldfish- the kind you see in the pet store- require at least TEN gallons of water per fish.  Most fish bowls contain half a gallon or less.  As they grow- to over four inches long with very high body mass- they need THIRTY gallons per fish.

You may argue that you have a goldfish in a bowl or tiny aquarium for a year or more and it hasn’t grown, so that’s OK, right?  That’s because the poor fish has had its growth stunted by living in such small quarters.  If that doesn’t somehow seem cruel to you, imagine buying a Saint Bernard puppy and keeping it in a two foot by two foot crate, never letting the poor guy out, and only cleaning his messes once a week or so.

Goldfish never belong in a bowl.  I can’t believe a socially responsible show like Sesame Street would do something so cruel.  I know of several moms who, with best intentions, have bought goldfish in bowls for their Elmo-loving kids.  The pet store employees have either hidden the truth or were ignorant to the facts of these wonderful pets.

Goldfish live a long time.  If you think keeping a fish in a bowl for a couple of years is a success, it isn’t.  Non-fancy varieties live to be teenagers or older.  Fancies, such as double tails, black moors, and lionheads can live to be 30!  Again, think of owning a kitten and it dies in a year or two.  Does that sound like the right lifespan for a cat?

If your kid wants a “Dorothy??? like Elmo, there are three good options.  First, buy a small aquarium and house a few fish that are gold in color but aren’t goldfish.  A ten-gallon aquarium with two or three gold-color Mickey Mouse platys will bring a lot of joy to your child.  Second, if a full-size aquarium is simply out of your budget, buy a bowl of a gallon or more and house two or three White Cloud Mountain Minnows and a nice growth of Java Moss, but no gravel (for easy cleaning).  Last, if all of this sounds too difficult, don’t buy any fish.  Aquaria are an addition to your household chores and lives are at stake.

Finally, I don’t blame the people who want the goldfish bowls.  I blame the pet stores and irresponsible employees who promote goldfish in a bowl. 

Mostly, I blame Elmo for marketing goldfish in a bowl to children.  It is cruel, irresponsible, and unnecessary.

Betta splendens Fry Update

My last Betta fry died today. I feel like a bit of a failure. It was somewhat of an experiment anyway, but part of me feels like hundreds of little lives shouldn’t be an “experiment.???

They hatched on 07 November, so they were four weeks old, and I lost them little by little. I did 20-40% water changes daily for three weeks, and then 30% every other day this week. I think I didn’t offer enough food; I had quite an infusoria culture going, but I weaned the fry onto dry foods because I didn’t have a microworm culture. I prepared egg yolk and they ate it with relish, but they never liked the prepared foods and I couldn’t feed them more than twice a day. Microworms live long enough for the fish to feed on them all day. I feel worse that they probably starved to death.

As an aquarium keeper, I’ve developed a keen sense of responsibility for the animals I keep. It’s tragic how some people treat their fish and I do everything I can to make my fish’s lives as happy as possible. Even with 25 years of experience, I’m still experimenting with my own ethics!

I am going to concentrate on the health of my reef and my five adult bettas. I’m thinking of converting the fry tank into a nice planted tank for the kitchen. Maybe a Betta biotope with the four females? I have each Betta in a 2.5-gallon aquarium, but I moved the females’ tanks together to see how they reacted to each other. While they are not supposed to be as pugnacious as the males, they “barred up??? and flared quite a bit at each other. I don’t want to put them together if they will end up beating on each other. Maybe I’ll make the 15-gallon tank heavily planted before I add the fish. That will also help me with the CO2 challenge: a DIY setup for CO2 can have drastic pH swings until the aquarist learns how to handle them.

As Calvin would say, Further Bulletins As Events Warrant.