Meet the lemon barb.

Barbs have always been a favorite among Filipino fishkeepers. If you have kept an aquarium at home, at one time or another you must have kept some Barbs. These are toothcarps from the family Cyprinidae. Barbs are quite popular in the Philippines. After all we do have some native and endemic Barbs in our waters; however, we barely know that they exist. What are popular in the Philippine aquarium trade are Barbs from our Asian neighbors: the Tiger Barb, Sumatra Barb, Golden Barb, Rosy Barb, Aurelio Barb, One Spot Barb, and Tinfoil Barb are most commonly seen in the fish stores all over the archipelago.

My first introduction to Barbs was when I was about 5 or 6 years old. This was quite a long time ago and chances are, you were not even born yet. But these Barbs we find in the aquarium trade were introduced to the market even before I was born. For an article I wrote many years back, I was fortunate enough to interview one of my local fish industry heroes: the late Earl Kennedy. Acknowledged as the “Father of the Philippine Aquarium Fish Trade,” he narrated to me his first encounter with Barbs during an interview while he was on his deathbed. “It was a few years after the war and Manila was picking up from the disaster when I was advised by the China Pet Center to check out their new fish from Siam. When I arrived in their shop, there they were. I fell in love in an instant. They were so beautiful… Tiger Barbs!”

This is a story I have always shared with fellow fishkeepers since it concerns a moment in Philippine history. I could imagine how pretty the Tiger Barb looked like at that time when “Mang Earl” was still a young man. Many decades later, generations of newbie Filipino fishkeepers are still amazed by Tiger Barbs.

If Tiger Barbs were the “cool” Barb of his time, in my generation, Tiger Barbs were still popular but the “cool” Barb was now the Tinfoil Barb (Barbonymus schwanenfeldii). My generation witnessed the evolution of aquariums from the galvanized iron-edged tanks with a maximum size of 30 gallons to the 75-gallon all-glass aquarium, which for that time was monstrous in size. With such a huge tank, the Filipino fishkeeper longed for a bigger fish to keep in it, and the Tinfoil Barb was the answer. It was an instant hit. From the 2-inch barb we were accustomed to, we began to pride ourselves on having a 12-inch monster in our tanks. The Tinfoil Barb was the king of the Barbs back then, since practically no one here had seen a Barb that big.

Meeting the Big Barb

Then a year ago, I saw a Barb that could easily dwarf a 12-inch Tinfoil Barb. Of course I had read about this Barb on the Internet, along with various accounts from fishkeepers in different fish forums. But once you see them in person, you will be amazed by how big it gets. It was late last year, at my friend Martin Manalang’s place, that I had this jaw-dropping moment. Upon entering the gate, you are greeted by his 300-gallon tank that looks crowded—but there are only seven fish! It took just seven Lemon Barbs to fill up that huge tank.

They weren’t particularly long as they measured 16 to 22 inches each, but owing to their body shape, they ‘stood’ tall and wide and were thick fish altogether. Imagine the fattest full grown Tinfoil Barb you ever saw; now double that size and this should approximate the size of these monster Lemon Barbs.

Lemon Barbs are not particularly rare fish. They are abundant in their native waters where they are an important food fish. They just aren’t popular aquarium fish, particularly in the Philippines. But if you like your fish big, then the Lemon Barb fills the bill!

The Lemon Barb is classified under Hypsibarbus wetmorei, which was first described by Smith in 1931. Synonyms of this species were recognized as Puntius daruphani by Smith in 1934; Barbus beasleyi by Fowler in 1937; and Puntius daruphani tweediei by Menon in 1954.

As if the scientific names were not confusing enough, the common names attributed to the Lemon Barb will guarantee you more confusion. They have been given the names Lemon Fin Barb, Yellow Belly Barb, Yellow Tinfoil Barb, Diamond Shark, and Golden Belly Barb, among others.

The Lemon Barb is widespread in mainland Southeast Asia, including the lower Mekong basin in Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia; the Tapi, Chao Phraya, and Mae Klong systems in Thailand; and various smaller watersheds in southern Thailand and northern Peninsular Malaysia, as far south as the Pahang River. They prefer flowing waterways and rivers to standing pools. The Lemon Barb is a migratory fish, specially during the spawning season.

They are large fish, with females reaching 24 inches in length. They are deep-bodied. The fish should measure 12 inches or more from the tip of the dorsal fin to the tip of the anal fin. The body is likewise wide as it is a thick fish, maybe about 4 inches thick. Males are generally smaller than the females. From the group that Martin has, the males were between 16-17 inches while the females were 20 to 22 inches.

The Lemon Barb is quite hardy and can cope with a wide pH range so long as extremes are avoided. A moderately acidic pH of 6.0 to a moderately alkaline pH of 8 is a range that Lemon Barbs are comfortable with. It is recommended to keep the water hardness between soft to medium hard, or a range of dH 4 to 12. Being from Southeast Asia, the temperature requirements of the Lemon Barb are not a concern for Filipino fishkeepers so long as temperature stays in the 22–28°C range.

The Lemon Barb is a real eye-catcher. The body color is silver, with large scales edged in black. The fins are oftentimes bright yellow. The yellow fins of the Lemon Barb differentiate it from a Tinfoil Barb, which has red fins.

It is quite a sociable animal, so they are best kept in schools of at least 4. This, however, will require a very large tank. I suppose a tank measuring 6 ft x 2 ft x 2 ft and holding 180 gallons is your minimum tank size to hold 4 adult Lemon Barbs. It might be more practical to keep them in ponds if you wish to keep a bigger school.

Lemon Barbs are voracious eaters and are not picky at all. I guess they will need a lot of food to be able to grow to a big size. They readily eat almost anything, from commercially prepared pellet fish food, to frozen food like fish or shrimp chopped to the appropriate sizes. Just make sure the servings are big because they do have big appetites. They are known to eat aquarium plants, so it might not be a good idea to put in some with them. Owing to their large size, small tankmates may find themselves on the menu, so select tankmates carefully.

As with other fish known for their legendary appetites, periodic water changes will be necessary to keep water in optimum conditions. Make sure this is done regularly and often.

The Lemon Barbs are generally peaceful and may be a welcome addition to your collection. The only hindrance is their size. They may be big but they are very gentle and will never endanger the lives of tankmates. If you are longing for large peaceful fish to put in a community tank, then the Lemon Barb should be a wise choice.

If you have any questions or inquiries about the fish discussed here or if you wish to have your fish featured in this column, please write Angel Ampil at AngelAmpil@yahoo.com.

This appeared in Animal Scene’s March 2016 issue.