Bioactive setup
What are Bioactive Setups?

Bioactive setups are quickly gaining popularity in the pet industry, but you may be wondering what a bioactive setup is, and why it is beneficial. Let’s take a look at what are bioactive setups.

Bioactive Setups

Bioactive terrariums and vivariums, or terrariums with live plants, are enclosures for housing pet reptiles, amphibians, insects and more. They focus on a more natural approach to cage cleanliness by utilizing populations of different microorganisms and small invertebrates, which consume and break down your pet’s waste. This group of beneficial decomposers is known as a “cleanup crew.”

Cleanup Crew

Your primary cleanup crew will consist of a variety of small invertebrates, while the secondary cleanup crew is comprised of beneficial microorganisms. They are made up of different fungi and bacteria that will further break down waste and debris.

Each has a special job in cleaning the cage, breaking down waste and preventing odors, which can reduce or sometimes even eliminate the need for cage cleaning.

Each species will perform better in a specific habitat. For example, a bioactive tropical habitats’ cleanup crew will have isopods, springtails and earthworms. On the other hand, a bioactive desert crew would consist mostly of beetles that can survive the higher temperatures and lower humidity.

Before adding the cleanup crew to your bioactive setup, temporarily remove your pet to prevent any unwanted feeding frenzy. Gently spread the cleanup crew around the enclosure and give them time to settle down and find a hiding spot before returning your pet.

At first, you will need to assist the crew in their cleaning duties until they build up their numbers. Remove any large pieces of waste. Sprinkle small amounts of food around the bioactive setup for the cleaning crew to find. This is especially beneficial in the beginning when you are growing your colony. Some favorite food items include fish food flakes, brewers yeast and bee pollen, though almost any food will work.

Bioactive Setup Cleanup Crew

  • Isopods play many vital functions in the cleanup crew and should not be left out of tropical bioactive setups. They help aerate the substrate and consume animal waste, plant debris and uneaten food. Isopods prevent the build-up of waste in the tank and help balance the ecosystem. They can also be an occasional source of food for your frog or gecko. However, note that they should not be counted on to feed your pet. Provide ample hiding places and retreats for the isopods.
  • Springtails are tiny six-legged omnivorous organisms that prefer dark, moist environments. They are considered the backbone of bioactive setups and should always be considered. Springtails spend most of their day hiding before venturing out in search of food scraps. Their population can grow quite larger, making them a big part of the cleanup crew. They are completely harmless and a favorite snack of dart frogs.
  • Earthworms are the engineers of the cleanup crew, as they change the structure of the substrate by mixing the soil layers and incorporating organic matter. They create tunnels in the bedding that allows oxygen to enter and carbon dioxide to escape, which increases beneficial bacteria activity. They also promote decomposition by eating organic matter, breaking it down into pieces small enough for bacteria and fungi to feed on, further releasing nutrients and making them available for use by plants.
  • Darkling beetles are the adult form of mealworms. If you introduce some mealworms to the bioactive enclosure, they will immediately get to work consuming waste and digging through the bedding, which helps keep harmful bacteria levels down. These beetles can live in a broader range of environments, including dry deserts and humid rainforests. Note that both the larval mealworm and adult beetle can be food sources for your pet, so provide ample hiding spots to prevent a wipeout.
  • Dermestid beetles are scavengers that feed on dead plants and animals.; they even clean skeletons They’re better suited to drier environments and make useful additions to a bioactive bearded dragon or leopard gecko setup. The furry larval worm is the most effective cleaner and can almost anything. The adult beetle prefers vegetation but will consume anything. Both the larval and adult beetle are a tempting food source for your pet, so provide ample hiding spots to prevent a wipeout.
  • If conditions are right, bacteria will grow in your bioactive setup immediately. Most types are beneficial, but some are bad. To ensure that your bioactive setup has a healthy bacterial colony, use a well-draining substrate, and don’t let it become waterlogged from overwatering or excessive misting; this can enable harmful bacteria to grow. Sulfur or bad smells may indicate a build-up of unwanted bacteria. Turn over the soil with a fork to increase aeration or replace the soil entirely. Add large cleanup crewmembers such as isopods and earthworms to help aerate the soil, promote beneficial bacteria growth and cut down odors.
  • Lastly, fungi play a vital role in the waste breakdown. They are excellent decomposers that break down waste into harmless nutrients that can be used by other lifeforms for growth. Most fungi varieties are harmless and arrive as spores in the air. The fungus provides an additional food source for the cleanup crew.


The proper substrate needs to provide places for the cleanup crew to live while still retaining moisture without becoming waterlogged. Substrate depth in a bioactive setup is about three to four inches, but you can go deeper to support a large microorganism population by providing plenty of surface area for beneficial bacteria and fungi to grow.

The drainage layer is the first layer and a significant part of the substrate. Drainage layers are generally used in enclosures that get regular spraying and have live plants; they are not necessary for desert enclosures. This layer will raise the substrate one to two inches off the floor and provide a space for excess water to drain out below the soil. This prevents the soil from becoming submerged in the excess water, which may promote harmful bacteria growth and rot the plants’ roots.

This layer will get a little soggy but should never be completely saturated with water. If it does fill with water, you should remove it with a siphon placed in one of the corners and reevaluate your watering routine.

Drainage Layer Options

There are three drainage layer options: hydro balls, plastic egg crate or light diffuser and gravel.

Hydro balls are the preferred method for a simple drainage system. They are expanded by clay balls, which form the base layer. Their honeycomb center makes them lightweight and provides an internal surface area for beneficial bacteria to grow.

Plastic egg crate or light diffuser is made up of panels of plastic in the form of a square lattice. It’s easy to cut and tie together to make scaffolding. It can also create a false floor that will hold the substrate above any water. Typically, plastic egg crate or light diffuser is used in setups that contain larger amounts of water, such as ponds. You can also construct spaces to hide filters and pumps from view.

Gravel is the cheapest option but also the heaviest and least useful means of drainage. It forms large spaces for water to channel through, but it doesn’t provide the capillary action qualities that hydro balls will. Keep in mind that moving a setup with two inches of gravel can be tricky.

Other Substrate Layers

No matter which drainage layer you choose, you need to add a drainage mesh. Its function is to prevent the substrate from falling into the drainage layer and clogging up the spaces while still allowing water to pass through. Drainage mesh can be any thin, porous material, such as fish netting, plastic mesh or weed mesh.

The third layer will be the bulk of the substrate and is usually a mix of different bedding materials, each with its own benefits.

The bioactive substrate can be topped off with a final layer of leaves known as “leaf litter.” This allows the substrate to retain more moisture and provides nice hiding spots for the cleanup crew to hang out. It also looks more natural.

Bioactive Setup Bedding Materials

Like the drainage layer options, there are several choices for the bedding materials: organic soil, sand, coconut fiber, wood bark, moss, activated carbon and ABG mix.

  • Standard organic potting soil is an excellent addition to any tropical bioactive setup and those with live plants. Note that is should be fertilizer- and pesticide-free. It can be mixed with sand to help tunnels hold their shape better for burrowing pets.
  • Sand is usually seen in drier setups but is also used as an addition to other mixes. There are many options available. We recommend a digestible animal-safe kind in case your pet consumes any sand.
  • Coconut fiber is great at resisting rotting and has excellent moisture retention. It is available in both dehydrated blocks and loose bags. There are even different grades available ranging from fine to medium to coarse.
  • Wood bark comes in two primary choices: orchard and fir. Orchard bark has a larger size chunk and works well in both dry and slightly moist environments. Fir bark is smaller and has good moisture retention, and it can be used in semi-moist and wet environments. When used in a mix, wood bark will create spaces for the cleanup crew to hide and make homes.
  • Moss is a great addition for moisture retention and should be used in any high humidity setup.
  • Activated carbon can be mixed in to help drainage and provide some filtering of any harmful chemicals.
  • ABG mix was developed by the Atlanta Botanical Garden and is a blend of tree fern fiber, fir bark, sphagnum moss, aquarium carbon and peat. The mixture creates a balance between drainage and moisture retention, and it can last for several years. The ratios can be altered, as there is no perfect mixture, but the standard ABG mix consists of two parts tree fern fiber or coco-fiber; two parts fir bark; one part sphagnum moss; one part aquarium carbon; and one part peat moss.

Natural Decorations

Natural decorations will provide plenty of cracks and crevices for the cleanup crew to hide from the main tank inhabitants. They will also make your bioactive setup more visually appealing.

Any natural decoration added to the bioactive setup should be rot-resistant. Appropriate woods that will work are Mopani, Malaysian driftwood, spider wood, Manzanita, cholla and cork bark.

Avoid using grape wood in a humid setup as it will quickly rot. It does work great in a dry environment.

Inert rocks also make a great choice. Any aquarium rock will work, but don’t use rocks or wood found outside.

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