Life in the Bowl:

The Betta

While most creatures, especially fish, fascinate me. I find the Betta to be truly amazing. This elegant and yet hardy fish has many characteristics that make it well suited for life in the bowl. Originally bettas were first found thriving in the warm shallow waters of rice fields and canals. To survive in this oxygen poor conditions, Betta’s have what’s known as a “labyrinth organ”, which allows them to breath air.

There are other reasons why bettas are well suited for life in the bowl. Betta’s are generally loners. Male bettas will fight to the death any other male betta they meet. Many times even female bettas are met with the same kind of aggression, the male will drive the female off after mating and care for the eggs himself.

While male bettas tend to get along with other kids of fish, their long flowing fins, the result of hundreds of years of selective breeding tend to be the targets of other fish. Many times these fins will be reduced to stringy stubs in a community tank.

Probably because of these long flowing fins, bettas tend to move a lot less than other fish albeit with significant grace again furthering their temperament towards the characteristic sedimentary waters of the bowl.

So the next step is how to keep your betta happy and healthy within this relatively small environment. I’ve found it to be very easy and enjoyable so I’ll share my experiences and you be the judge.

I have 3 betta’s as of the writing of this article. Two bright red’s that I’ve had for over a year and an orange/yellowish fellow I’ve had for about 3+ years now. Non of them have been in a bowl larger than one gallon, and that being only about half full.

Plants, aquatic

If you have read other articles about bettas and aquariums, many experts will lecture on the importance of plenty of room and fresh water, even for bettas. I disagree. I believe one of the most important items bettas need, more so than perfect water quality and almost as important as food to be happy is plants. I say this for a number of reasons:

  1. Aquatic plants help oxygenate the water.
  2. Aquatic and terrestrial root cuttings can be used to help reduce ammonia, a byproduct of most animals.
  3. Increase surface area to allow the growth of ammonia and nitrate eating bacteria.
  4. Provide coverage which can be so important, especially for new fish that need that added level of security as they adapt to their new environment.
  5. Environmentally that is what they are instinctively used to, rice fields have plants in them. Lots and lots of plants.

Some of my favorite plants to keep with bettas are as follows:

  • anacharis, also known as the Brazilian Waterweed, is an ideal aquatic plant for the bowl. Light to bright green leaves, with branching stems covered in small grouped leaflets. Anacharis anchors itself in the substrate by sending out tendril like roots, but will also grow just as well free floating. In fact it may grow so well that it will require frequent pruning. Works well as an algae fighter and nutrient sponge usually at a very affordable price.
    Read more about working with anacharis

  • frogbit, Free floating small plant (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae) resembling a miniature lily pad. It has nickel sized, kidney shaped, green leaves about 1 inch or less across that grow in circular clusters. New pads rise from the cluster center to produce new growth. A white flower with a yellow center may be tucked among the leaves. The undersides of the leaves are puffed with spongy, air-holding tissue. The roots are beautiful fan like extensions that can grow two inches or more and absorb nutrients directly from the water without having to anchor or even touch the bottom.
    Read more about working with frobit

  • salvinia minima, Small, oval, 3/8" joined eaves covered with tiny hairs that absorb nutrients from the water. Prefers a lot of light and will help control algae. These plants are essentially floating ferns. Since they naturally occur in still waters having high organic content they are perfect for the bowl. Their root-like structures which are actually modified fronds that act like nutrient sponges helping to clean the water like their floating counter part.
    Read more about working with salvinia

  • duckweed, a small floating flowering plant, is highly recommended for fish. It's not only considered extremely healthy for many types of fish in their diet but the roots attract other nutritious microscopic foods for smaller fish and fry. These plants grow floating in still or slow-moving fresh water around the globe, except in the coldest regions. The growth of these high-protein plants can be extremely rapid, so much so that even if a few of these plants remain after a water change they will quickly repopulate the surface. I've read that environmental scientists are using duckweeds to remove unwanted substances from water. All in all a very good addition for a bowl.
    Read more about working with duckweed

  • java moss, While one of my absolute favorites I'm still relatively new at growing this plant let alone taking good pictures. You should be able to find better pictures of this plant on some of the links I've included in this article, Java moss is the common name for Vesicularia dubyana, a hardy plant which makes few demands on the water or light and will grow on just about any surface. It is ideal for decorating stones and plant roots in your bowl. It can be anchored by placing a stone on top, tied into position using fishing line or just left free floating. If its growth becomes too excessive as it usually will given enough time it can be broken up and spread to other bowls and aquariums. Its an excellent hiding place for smaller fish and shrimp.
    Read more about working with javamoss

Plants, terrestrial

While the above plants are readily available and affordable they are by no means the only ones you can use. There are many, many more aquatic, semi aquatic and even terrestrial plants that are well suited for the bowl. The following are just a few that I have had tremendous success growing with my bettas and shrimp.

  • Spider Plants, (Chlorophytum comosum), are a very common of houseplants. This relatively low maintence plant will grow and propagate very easily. Care involves watering once or twice a week and an occasional feeding with some form of plant food several times a year. They do well in almost any kind of light.Smaller version of the spider plant will appear in offshoot branches after the plant is about a year or more old and will continue to produce offspring in this manner for the life of the plant which I understand can be quite long. Once the small spider plants have some kind of root buds showing on their underside they can be cut off and planced in water to allow their roots to develope. Afterwards they can be kepts in water or moved to some form of medium like perlite or potting soil.

    Spider plants are known to help improve air quality more so in fact than many other plants so it's a good plant to have around in numbers.

  • Striped inch plant, ( Tradescantia pallida or Setcreasea purpurea) Commonly called the Wandering Jew, is an evergreen perennial plant with pointy leaves which vary from purple to other common varietys with green and purple leaves and green and white or variegated. Occasionall small three-petaled pink flowers with yellow stamens will appear depending on season and condition of the plant. The plant thrives in sun or light shade making it both an excellent indoor and outdoor plant though it should be brought in before freezing temperatures start. Typically used in hanging baskets, ornamental in gardens and borders and as ground covering. The plant propagates easily by cuttings; the stems are visibly segmented and roots will frequently grow from the joints.The Wandering Jew is native to America and is found from the southern United States through South America.

  • Tahitian Bridal Veil, (Tripogandra multiflora Commelinaceae)

    Native to the Tropical Rain Forest is fast, easy growing beautiful plant. Trailing stalks makes this plant great for hanging. It's 2" wide 4" long leaves are green with yellow streaks with purple undersides and olive tops; small flowers borne abover the foiage. Stems grows to be several feet in length.

    These plants flourish in partial shade, humid air, and planty of water with a minimum temperature of 55-60 degrees. The soil should be pretty moist at all times. When the plants have developed a good root system, diluted liquid fertilizer can be fed once a month. Watch for aphids and mealybugs.

  • Pilea If not grown in water Keep the soil moderately moist and use a house plant fertilizer according to label directions. The plants are intolerant of low humidity. Ideal temperatures are 62 to 65 degrees at night and up to 85 degrees during the day. Pileas have limited application as foliage plants because of their fragile stems and foliage and their need for rather high humidity levels for long term survival indoors. They are grown primarily as small potted plants, 3-inch being the most popular size, and hanging baskets, usually 6- and 8-inch for the trailing types. Pileas have also been used successfully in dish gardens and terrariums.

    Propagation is by cuttings.Pilea

  • Aluminum Plant
  • Aluminum Plant
    Pilea cadierei
    Origins: Vietnam

    The species of Pilea listed here are ideally suited for window sills and tables. Most grow no more than 12 inches tall and have peculiarly puffy leaves with depressed veins that make them look quilted.

    The aluminum plant grows about 10 inches tall and has 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-inch leaves, each with three conspicuous sunken veins; the quilted sections appear to have been brushed with aluminum paint. .Pilea species do best in bright indirect or curtain-filtered sunlight; if only artificial light is available, provide at least 400 foot-candles. Night temperatures of 65° to 70° and day temperatures of 75° to 85° are ideal

  • Pilea Glauca The many species of pilea grow best in an east window or a medium light intensity. In a south window, protection from the sun is needed. Keep the soil moderately moist and use a house plant fertilizer according to label directions. The plants are intolerant of low humidity. Ideal temperatures are 62 to 65 degrees at night and up to 85 degrees during the day. Pileas have limited application as foliage plants because of their fragile stems and foliage and their need for rather high humidity levels for long term survival indoors. They are grown primarily as small potted plants, 3-inch being the most popular size, and hanging baskets, usually 6- and 8-inch for the trailing types. Pileas have also been used successfully in dish gardens and terrariums.

    Propagation is by cuttings.


The Water Change

Another two words you will come across here when reading about betta, and fish care in general is “water change”. In internet news groups and articles you will see this stressed again and again how important it is to constantly “change the water”. The water change is probably where your going to kill your fish. Please don’t get me wrong, water changes are good but if not done right they are best done not at all.

A fish can probably die during a water change for several reasons, contaminates such as chlorine, too sudden of a temperature change or just the trauma of the change in environment.

So here are my tips on this important issue:

First off it’s good to realize every betta is an individual, I know that sounds trite and I don’t know if it holds true for all fish many of which seem like carbon copies swimming in schools but I’m convinced that bettas exhibit individual personality traits and us betta owners do well to bear this in mind. Some bettas when you get them home will be eating right out of your hand while still in the pet shop bag but I think most won’t. Most will need a adjustment period to settle in to their new home.

I personally like to prepare a one gallon bowl at least 3-4 days in advance, sometimes several weeks and half fill it with either filtered water or tap water that has sat for at least several days. I add some duck weed, frogbit, some anacharis and always a rooted spider plant, one that has never seen soil but been grown entirely in water, providing nice roots to hide behind and leaves to hide under. For a bottom I prefer a nice crystal white sand that's been washed thoroughly. Sometime I've had to pay extra for this at my local hardware and garden shops since in my area only construction grade sand meets these specifications.

It is a good idea to let the betta bag (or water ever container he happens to be in) sit next to the bowl for about 20 minutes for the temperatures to equalize. Then gently pure the betta into the new bowl. I like to keep my bowls about 50%-60% capacity giving the water as much surface area as possible to aid in aeration.

I take the bowl and place it right next to a similar bowl with a betta I already have had for a while. The plants will provide the security it needs while the introduction of a rival will help bring it out of any sullen stupor the trip from the pet shop may have induced.

After this point I don’t like to do a water change for several weeks. A water change can be a bit of a trauma especially for a new fish so I hold off. Even some of the less intrusive methods like siphoning can still cause problems. The longer the bowl has been allowed to sit with plants before the new bettas arrival the more chance ammonia and nitrate eating bacteria will have been given to accumulate. This biological conversion of ammonia to nitrite, and nitrite to nitrate via aerobic bacteria is called cycling.

A one gallon bowl that has been given a chance to cycle in this fashion will have no trouble housing a betta for several weeks with out a water change with the following caveat. Keep your feedings to a minimum. I can’t stress this point enough. I’ve read that many pet shops attribute up to 90 % of purchased fish mortality rates are attributed to over feeding.

It’s not that the fish dies from eating too much but from the sudden spike in ammonia levels due to un eaten food laying on the bottom or from the extra waste from food that did get eaten. This goes for aquariums as well as bowls. I only give my betta’s what they can eat in about 30 seconds with none of it even reaching the bottom and generally only 3 feedings a week.

In a future article I'll be covering some of the exciting live foods one can easily raise for their betta. but for now, my favorite type of dry food for betta's are the small pellets. The following list are some of the brands I've had great success with:


HBH betta bites, Quote: "Contains essential vitamins and minerals for better health and color vibrancy. The unique formula contains appetite stimulating ingredients to attract bettas. Appears as small insects floating on the water surface to trigger immediate feeding response."
Top Fin Betta Bits, Quote: "Keep your betta beautiful and energetic with Top Fin Betta Bits. Formulated especially for betta, these floating pellets contain essential nutrients and color enhancers."
Wardley Betta Food, Quote: "A balanced blend of nutritious ingredients that help aid in the health and brilliant coloration of tropical fish. Extraordinary color enhancement is achieved from natural ingredients."
Hikari Betta Bio Gold, Quote: "Enhance your bettas' color the natural way with Hikari Betta Bio-Gold. Formulated to meet 100% of your bettas' daily nutritional needs while enhancing their brilliant colors and preventing fading. A high level of stabilized vitamin C promotes proper growth and strengthens resistance to disease and stress. These floating pellets will not cloud the water."

I have tried some of the flaked food for bettas but not with much success. They either chomp and spit out the flakes or ignore them all together. Maybe others have had success with flaked foods so it might be a good idea to keep an open mind and use what works best for your pet.

If you do have trouble with food reaching the bowl bottom, there is help, which leads me into my next topic:

Bowl Mates for your betta

Actually because of size and temperament of bettas and other fish, there are not too many choices for company for this fish. In fact, for bowls of one gallon or less the only one I really like is the Malaysian Trumpet Snail. The Trumpet Snail is a small, hardy and rather prolific live bearing snail. While many aquariumists don’t care too much for this creature, and rightfully so since its high rate of reproduction can cause it to get out of hand very quickly in a tank. In the bowl it does quite well, digging through the sand eating all kinds of organic matter and algae but leaving most plants alone. Any unwanted snails can be easily removed during a water change.

Another creature that some betta enthusiasts have had success with is a common fresh water crustacean called a Ghost Shrimp. Available in most pet shops, Ghost shrimp will eat just about anything, making them excellent scavengers. They are typically non aggressive to most other species though they will tend to poke at each other from time to time. I personally like to keep Ghost Shrimp by themselves in a bowl. I’ve even had them lay eggs (develop eggs on ththeir tail swimmerets) and rear young in a bowl though out of about 20 only 3-4 ultimately survived to adult hood. Small shrimp like that would be quickly devoured by a betta.

The key to having Betta’s and Ghost Shrimp living together is plenty of room. Even a gallon bowl might be too small. Plants and Rocks for cover for the shrimp will also help. I would also go for height. A one to two gallon clear vase might be better then a wide bowl since the betta will like to stay at the top while the shrimp can scavenge near the bottom.

Feeding can be an issue as well. While both shrimp and betta will eat the betta pellets my fish will eat them up way before shrimp even notices them. I get around this by putting a few tetramin flakes in at the same time as the betta pellets. I try to place these different foods at opposite sides of the bowl. As my betta and ghost shrimp have started to get used to each other I've notice the shrimp stealing an ocasional pellet off the bottom and the betta not making too much of a fuss.

Bear in mind that even if you do everything right the betta still might decide to kill the Ghost Shrimp. I’ve seen this happen and attribute it more towards territory then anything else since the shrimp did not get eaten. Also, remember, betta’s all have such different temperaments, effecting how much tolerance they will have towards other creatures near them.