How To Care For a Small Ecosystem – Architectural Digest

how-to-care-for-a-small-ecosystem-–-architectural-digest

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In the thick of winter, when every year 5% of Americans experience seasonal affective disorder and approximately 14% experience milder winter blues, the positive effects of nature on mental health are especially needed. “Even if you’re just sitting and breathing in fresh air, engaging your five senses with the four elements of nature helps put you in touch with a system much greater than yourself,” says Han Ren, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Austin. When you’re feeling run-down, it is soothing to remember that the universe is so much bigger than the issues plaguing you throughout the day.While it’s not a substitute for going outdoors, Dr. Ren says, this soothing effect can also be experienced within the confines of our homes. If you find plants a tad boring (or you’ve already bought all the plants you could ever buy), small ecosystems like an aquarium, a jellyfish tank, or an ant farm are options. As you witness fish growing or ants laying eggs, the passing of time is once again anchored, which is helpful if you feel time has slowed down during the pandemic. Within these tiny ecosystems, the natural world continues to turn, unperturbed, in spite of the daunting problems you face. Though they do a lot, your cat or dog can’t fully serve as an existential reminder of the importance of community.Before you can enjoy their psychological benefits, ant farms and aquariums need work. We spoke with experts on how to safely incorporate these ecosystems into our homes. While not as simple as plant care, the attention needed might just be a perfect way to pass the time.AquariumsFor novice aquarium owners Nicolas Tiemens, cofounder of Infinity Aquarium Design, recommends starting with a freshwater one. “With a freshwater aquarium, there’s fewer parameters that we have to monitor, like temperature and pH,” he says. “When you graduate to a saltwater aquarium, now you’ve got to be aware of temperature, pH, alkalinity, calcium, magnesium, strontium, all of these different elements that go into producing nutrients for corals and fish.”Your aquarium should be placed in a room where the temperature doesn’t fluctuate drastically, and kept away from sunlight and bright light which trigger algae growth. Nicolas suggests illuminating the tank with low-wattage LED lighting, unless the tank contains plants requiring higher-powered lighting. If so, stronger lighting would need to be programmed to switch on and off at certain times to prevent algae development. Decorating with organic material like live plants also changes the water pH, says Nicolas, so do this with careful thought to ensure the pH is still conducive for the fish to live in. If you’re in doubt, it’s safer to go with synthetic aquarium decor.Jellyfish TanksThere’s no doubt that jellyfish aquariums look cool. But being saltwater animals, jellyfish are more complicated to look after. For one, their tank needs to be engineered to keep the jellyfish suspended in the water, mimicking the ocean current that helps them move around, says Justin Muir, Principal Designer at City Aquarium. The water needs to be kept between 50° and 70° F, and its pH and salinity kept constant and similar to that of the ocean. Justin and his team clean and maintain their clients’ jellyfish tanks weekly, and he encourages people to research how to do so to determine whether they have capacity to carry this out religiously. Justin says tabletop jellyfish aquariums nowadays often come with maintenance directions, so this is a good starting point for information on jellyfish care.When choosing where to buy your jellyfish, Justin recommends jellyfish breeders like Jellyfish Warehouse. “Captive-bred jellyfish do much better as they are also more tolerant to changes in their environment, such as temperature, salinity, and other chemical fluctuations. They are also taught to eat frozen foods as opposed to live foods.” But some species only eat live food, says Justin, and he still recommends live food, such as live brine shrimp, even if your jellyfish species tolerates frozen food. These can be delivered to your home or propagated yourself.Ant FarmsWhile requiring far less work than a jellyfish aquarium, ant farms still need to be attended to for the ant colony to stay healthy.Dr. Rebecca Clark, assistant professor of biology at Siena College, suggests sourcing your ant farm from Ants Canada, as it has a Global Ant Nursery Project that puts you in touch with local ant suppliers who can provide tailored information about specific species. You will typically receive information about how to maintain the farm and feed the ants from the ant supplier company, says Dr. Clark. “Some species eat seeds, others dead insects; others prefer sugar water, and often it’s a mixture of these foods.” Unlike aquatic animals, ants also need water, which they can get from a damp cotton ball placed in the farm.House your ants in a plaster, soil, or gel farm, says Dr. Clark. Plaster and soil farms need to be watered to keep them moist, and all three types of farms need to be monitored for mold growth. “The ants themselves, if they use the farm as their nest, will keep it clean,” says Dr. Clark. “But if there’s a buildup of extra food there for a long time, that’s when you start to see mold.” She recommends soil to be sterilized first before adding it to the soil farm, by sifting the soil and baking it in an oven at 125°C for around two hours.Once a farm develops mold, transfer the colony into a new farm. You would also need to move the colony if you notice the condition of the farm deteriorating. This is when the plaster starts looking dingy or isn’t absorbing water well, when the soil farm starts to smell bad or not look as clean as it did, and when the gel farm dries out and starts to shrink. But even if your ant farm seems to be in good condition, Dr. Clark recommends transferring the colony to a new farm once every two to three months. “There’s a lot of species that actually move house periodically. They often have a couple of ants that are looking to see what looks better out there and bring that message back and say they should relocate.”
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