"Hey, I'm thinking of getting some cool Barbs for my awesome new blackwater, botanical-style aquairum!" SAID NO ONE EVER.
Let's face it, with all of the amazing fishes available to the hobby, some get more favorable treatment than others. Some are simply loved more. Some get all of the "good press", and others get a bad reputation.
Take this little quiz:
Quick- Which is the first word that comes to your mind when a fish geek says "Barbs?"
Sensing a theme here?
I think so.
I think my "theme" is admittedly based on equal parts childhood experiences, fish store "chatter", outdated information, and good old lack of experience with them over the years. The same kind of lack of experience which has resulted in so much bad, third-hand, and regurgitated information in a lot of hobby sectors (even in ours, thanks to some arrogant, self-proclaimed "experts" who aren't!)
It shouldn't be this way, but I'm pretty certain, just based on conversations that I have with fellow hobbyists, that, if you poll a random group of hobbyists (and I have), you see this exact sort of response.
And any time "meh" comes up twice in a few seconds when talking about a group of fishes, you know that there are equal parts of inexperience and a sprinkling of ignorance mixed in there somewhere!
Barbs are "old school" fishes, for sure.
I mean, even the name "Barb" is sort of "old school" sounding- like a name origin lost in the thick mists of aquarium history..a haze of metal-framed aquariums, "nylon filter floss", and "air-powered outside filters..."
Even the name "Barb"- sort of reeks of that "big, gnarly PROBLEM fish" label, right? I mean, they're called freakin' "BARBS?" Really?
The family Cyprinidae needs to hire a new marketing agency, like pronto!
According to the venerable Wikipedia, The root of the group, "Barb" is "common in cyprinid names of European languages", derived from the Latin word, "barba"- a humble reference to the "barbels" which are prominently seen around the mouth of many fishes we classify as "barbs".
Yeah. Sounds really "1950's" to me. And that means it's a group of fishes that's ready for a new look.
Okay, I'll admit it, for all to hear:
I consider myself an "advanced" hobbyist, but I'm shockingly ignorant about Barbs.
Perfect time for me to write something about some fishes I know so little about! What could go wrong? 😆
And it's not like Barbs are obscure fishes, kept only by highly advanced specialists or ignorant beginners. Nope. They're really considered one of the "cornerstone" groups of aquarium fishes...well, sort of...Right?
I think so.
And I fully admit, I'm downright lacking in my knowledge of them as compared to fishes like characins and killies and such. I'm going to be a bit arrogantly presumptuous for a moment and suggest that many of you might be, too!
I mean, I can identify some of the more popular members of the group. I can hold my own in a very lightweight conversation on them with general hobbyists. However, once you get beyond, "Which do you like better: The 'classic' Tiger Barb, or the 'Moss Green' Tiger Barb?" my lack of current knowledge is "front and center!"
Yet, when you think about "Barbs"- that's like IT, right? I mean, "Tiger Barb", "Cherry Barb", "Tinfoil Barb", and...um, well...uhh...?
Not only am I sort of ignorant about 'em...I never even really gave them a fair shake over the past- oh, like 25 years or so...
And that's a real shame. They're kind of- well, cool!
It's hard to imagine being this ignorant or at least, indifferent- about a group of fishes that are so pervasive in the hobby, but I simply think it's because I just haven't played with them as much as other fishes. When I was a kid, I always had a few Cherry Barbs or Tiger Barbs; maybe a "Gold Barb" or two- in my tanks- but was always held back from trying others by what "the books" said about them. I was literally scared away from them:
"Aggressive!" "Metallic." (aquarium hobby code word for "butt-ass ugly", BTW) "May eat aquatic plants!" "Produce copious amounts of metabolic waste", "Attain 5 inches in length!"
Shit. That's some bad PR, huh? I mean, hardly makes them "aspirational" when you are a kid with a 10-gallon community tank.
I was doomed from the earliest days in my hobby "career" to simply smile as I walked by tanks filled with them at the LFS...
Literally, they're "typecast" as mean, ugly, tropical versions of Goldfish!
"Barb bashing" is like a "given" in our hobby for some reason.. So sad. And so common...
So, I was like a classic example of someone who was simply "programmed" by the popular opinions of the day, and it sort of shut me down on this large and diverse group of fishes for decades! And you wonder why now, in my ripe old middle age, I've become the aquarium world's "pied piper" of, "Question everything again!"
I think that it's time to re-think these fishes. Yeah, we all need to look at them yet again. Ignorance, or simply accepting the most basic dismissals of them without further consideration is no longer acceptable!
Now, I'm certain that I'm the ONLY one who was sort of "chased off" by the popular sentiment regarding these guys! Think about it: Why is it that we have all sorts of Cichlid clubs, Killie clubs, Betta clubs, Guppy Clubs, even Catfish clubs and Shrimp clubs, but NO "Cyprinid clubs" ("Okay, you can say the same about characins, too...but let's stick to the Barbs here, Fellman" )?
Maybe what's not helping these guys is that, taxonomically, they're heaped into the family Cyprinidae, which also includes such notable big, messy, butt-ugly and non-aquarium-friendly fishes as...Carps and Minnows...Yeah.
Now, in defense, the family Cyprinidae also includes the ultra-cool Danios and the popular "Sharks", not to mention, the rad group of fishes that we collectively refer to as Rasbora...
So, we can't categorically "dis" the whole group...but man- the "poster children" of the family are, well...pretty much everything our forefathers in the aquarium world told us: Big, ugly, gluttonous fishes that would pretty much lay to waste any well-managed aquarium in minutes!
(Cyprus carpio- Latin for "Big fuckng ugly fish?" Well, it scared me off! Pic by Kapr Obecny-Used under CC BY SA-3.)
Or we hear of pretty, yet mass-bred, genetically-weak, mankind-exploited versions of these fishes, damning the marketplace for years with their general "non-vigorousness..." So, the caveats about this group of fishes DO become ingrained into our collective fish-geek psyche from an early age, don't they?
But then again, if you're a kid, looking for active, cool fishes for your first 20-gallon tank, the Tiger Barb (currently Systomus tetrazona, I think) and it's relatives are sort of hard to turn away from...Of course, until said Tiger Barb and its pals starts beating the shit out of your Neons in your small "community" tank, that is.
Yet, that's not really the fish's fault, right?
(The "classic" Tiger Barb. Pic by Anandarajkumar -used under CC-BY-SA 3.0)
The reality is that many, many of these guys DO make cool aquarium fish, particularly if your tank is large enough to keep a school, and to provide enough room for the other inhabitants to "get out of the way" when the barbs start partying. I mean, "relentlessly active" doesn't always translate into "aggressive", right?
Especially when they're maintained in a tank set up for their needs.
Stuff we need to research, think about, and prepare for before we purchase. Otherwise, the "hate cycle" continues forever, as the fish live up to our very lowest base expectations of them.
And yes, speaking of needs- there are a ton of Barbs that come from tinted, acidic waters in Southeast Asia- perfect for what we do.
And perfect for a well-researched "biotope-inspired" aquarium, right? Yeah. I think this is another group of fishes that could benefit from being maintained under conditions more closely representing their natural habitats...which are both interesting and attractive aquarium subjects.
(Yeah, the "Siamese Tiger Barb", Putnigrus partipentazona...Hello, Asian biotope aquarium!)
Can you imagine a Barb "biotope" tank? One which "riffs" on some of the sexy botanical-laden blackwater habitats from which many come from?
Oh, yeah. I can!
Jungle streams, filled with leaves, seed pods, interesting rocks, plants...the sort of habitats that make even the most jaded fish geek sit up and give them a second look.
Well, wait just a minute...Seems as though we've been down this road before.
Remember our video, "The Tint Meets The Aquascaper", by the legendary George Farmer, which we featured a few years back?
What fish did George choose to "star" in this awesome blackwater aquarium?
Why, Puntius pentazona, which look incredibly sexy when given the proper environment, don't they? And when an aquarium personality with the extraordinary taste and talent of George-freaking-Farmer chooses to feature them in one of his videos, you'd think it would open up the floodgates to a new era of popularity for these seemingly forgotten fishes...
I haven't seen a "barb-centric" display since that one. Not even a request to do an "Enigma Pack" for a Barb tank.
A tank that nice, by a hobbyist that famous, with fish this cool- should have definitely helped change some minds about this diverse group of fishes. And yet...I still cannot recall off the top of my head if, to date, I have received a pic of a single tank from a member of our community, inspired by George's tank, set up exclusively for- or even simply featuring-Barbs!
So we'll keep forging ahead...
Hoping to undo a century or so of "bad programming" that we and hobbyists worldwide have been exposed to, telling us to approach them with extreme caution...If at all.
Counter-programming is necessary. An "aquairum intervention" of sorts!
We had to do a little of it ourselves...We featured a sexy, Asian-themed botanical-style tank from Johnny Ciotti absolutely "starred" Barbs- specifically, a group of Desmopuntius omboocellatus- the "Snakeskin Barb" from Mike Tuccinardi-one of THE coolest barbs you'll ever see. They're flat-out awesome in this tank. And peaceful. And they don't eat aquatic plants.
Our Barb "Anti-Hero" had arrived!
Social media freaked the fuck out...And, then?
That tank had everything going for it: Size, style, environment, plants, tinted water...
Yeah, you almost never see Barbs kept in a proper context like this, IMHO. And context, as we know, can make a big difference in perception of a given species within the aquarium hobby.
But it takes repetition, I suppose.
Even I, finally disgruntled by the lack of respect these fishes receive from the hobby, and eager to set up an aquairum which replicated some aspects of their habitat, decided to feature those same "Snakeskin Barbs" in my "Asian-inspired" tank. It was hard, because as you know, I have a bit of a South American "bias" and this was a bit out of my area of expertise...
Yet, I dutifully executed.
The fish were surprisingly shy, hiding a lot of the day (maybe 'cause I had so damn many small Rasbora in there?), but coming to life daily during feeding. And yeah, the predictable happened: A whole lot of "WOW! Those fish are HOT! What are they?" comments on Instagram- lots of 💕, and yet, I never saw nor heard of anyone else ever setting up a tank with them for themselves, inspired by our efforts...
So we've seen and presented few "modern twists" on the idea of Barbs in an aquarium conceived around them...
And still...the sound of silence.
I mean, they truly look amazing in blackwater! What's the deal here?
Really, what IS it that keeps these fishes from exploding with popularity?
I'm at a loss, here.
Work with me, people...
I really do think that this is a group that truly suffered/suffers from the cumulative effects of "bad press" they've received over the decades, warning us about the general need for "large tanks", "hefty filters", "tough tank mates", etc. I totally fell for this stuff, when the reality is that, as that a group, many of these guys don't seem all that much more aggressive than a bunch of rowdy Apistos, if you ask me.
And they're not nearly as touchy!
Yes, there are some aggressive ones. There are some huge ones. There are some which poop like mad. And yeah, there are some which tear up live plants.
So, simple solution: We can just avoid these pain-in-the-ass species, right?
I think that we can collectively blow up the popularity of Barbs by maintaining the most "aquarium-friendly" species under the most appropriate possible conditions. Study the natural habitats where they come from (Google!). Employ botanicals. Select the correct plants. Follow rigorous husbandry regimens.
Nothing different here than we've done for so many other varieties of fishes, right?
The fact that they are so diverse, generally hardy (with the possible exception of the damn Cherry Barb for many of us-perhaps because it's a victim of lowest-common-denominator "commoditized breeding", rather than any fault of the fish itself), and typically rather easy to breed, makes the "disrespect" they have received by the general hobby all that much more perplexing.
And interestingly, Barbs do have a certain "character" that many of the shoaling fishes we keep (like my beloved Tetras) seem to lack. Maybe it's because many of them are "larger" fishes by aquarium hobby standards- 3" (7.62cm) or so on the average, and almost seem to have individual "personalities.." A far cry from my little mindless, "micro-drone" Tetras, I think.
That's a pretty cool thing, right?
They do have that sort of "It factor" going for them... Sure, some WILL tear up plants...some will get a bit rambunctious at times..but I mean, c'mon...plants or fishes? And, what's wrong with a little "spirit" now and then? Really. I mean, tons of people love fucking Eartheaters, right? Like, why?
Seriously, though- you CAN compromise. And there are some damn good "compromises" from which to choose!
(The undeniably sexy Black Ruby Barb (Puntius nigrofasciatus), captured by my mentor, the late, great Bob Fenner!)
There are numerous relatively modest-sized species, which, when placed in an aquarium designed to highlight them and accommodate their needs, can create a vibe and aesthetic that are truly second to none. We know that "subtle" coloration is not a "nonstarter" for a fishes kept in a botanical-style, blackwater aquarium.
The right conditions can really highlight a fish in a very special way!
Of course, in a blog piece of this necessary brevity, we can scarcely scratch the surface of this topic, short of giving everyone a little shove to research more about them and consider them for inclusion in your next tank!
I know that I will.
With sufficient swimming space, water chemistry, and oh...aquatic plants and botanicals- what kinds of fascinating results are possible? Perhaps a break in the "meh cycle," which has unfairly plagued these fishes for decades in the hobby.
Barbs, like so many of the fishes we play with in our aquariums, benefit- and suffer- from the perceptions and "misconceptions" they dealt with for years.
Yeah, not all of them are aggressive, mean bastards that nip fins and eat Bucephelandra, so maybe we need to give 'em yet another look...and cut 'em some slack?
I think we do...
Perhaps, looking more closely at Barbs can help us improve in other areas, too? Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned that can be applied to the hobby, or even life in general? By giving them the respect and consideration they deserve, we can absolutely "de-program" ourselves from the (unfair) biases of our own making, avoiding the over-generalization and stereotyping which sours so many things in our culture, right?
Damn. I'm feeling like Barbs can change the world!
Well, maybe they can change the hobby!
Let's start by seeing if they can change a few minds, first, right?
Let's take the "blah" out of the "Barb equation", okay?
Let's just do it!
Yeah! Sure, some can get big. Some are nasty at times. Some do destroy plants.
Not all of them, though.
Do some research..Perhaps other than the general hobby stuff? Scholarly articles on fishes can yield tons of good stuff that's actually factual! Yeah, some of it is dry and dull, so roll up your sleeves, mix a cocktail, and just deal. You'll find some cool stuff out there, trust me!
Break out the leaf litter, line up some dark substrate material...Set up that 55-gallon tank you've been itching to play with...and, this time...add a group of Barbs to it!
You can do it!
As always...Stay excited. Stay thoughtful. Stay open-minded. Stay curious. Stay excited...
And Stay Wet.