Live foods are vital to the good health and nutrition of aquarium fish. They are what fish eat in nature, and a necessity for successful breeding and raising the fry. Here below are the live food cultures I currently offer for sale, and instructions for culturing and using these and other live foods.
These four nematode worms are indispensible as first or second foods for thefry of almost all freshwater aquarium fish. They are simple to culture and maintain and all but the vinegar eels get started very quickly. The MW, BW and WW are all cultured on solid medium like oatmeal, and the VE are cultured in a jug of cider vinegar and water.
They differ mainly in terms of size, reproductive rate, and how long they stay alive in water. The differences are not visually apparent at the level of individual worms. They become apparent at the level of a whole culture.
You should always plan ahead and have cultures going before fry arrive, especially with vinegar eels that usually take four to six weeks to get going. Once a VE culture does start producing though, it can last up to a year! With little to no maintenance required, it is a good idea to just start and keep a jug or two of vinegar eels running just in case.
All four have about the same high nutritional value, a close second in many respects to newly hatched baby brine shrimp (BBS). The comparison table here below summarizes the important differences. If you are hatching really tiny fry like bettas, you want walter worms and vinegar eels. You can start larger fry that are still too small for BBS right away on banana worms or micro worms. Micro worms are also good for fry growing out and even smaller fish like neons, juvenile guppies, or badis.
|Species||Relative Size||Doubling Time|
|Vinegar Eel||Small||Very Slow|
These low cost starters are available for all four nematodes: micro worms, banana worms, walter worms and vinegar eels. The vinegar eels take four to six weeks to get going well, and the micro, banana and walter worms at least one week in a sandwich-size container.
All cultures come with a packet of yeast to help start up, and pipettes that can be used to feed the worms to your fry. Culture instructions with pictures are available on this page for easy reference. Two ounce starter pricing is here below:
|Choose 1 of BW - MW - WW - VE||3||$4.00||$3.45||1C|
|Choose 2 of BW - MW - WW - VE||3||$6.00||$3.45||2C|
|Choose 3 of BW - MW - WW - VE||4||$8.00||$3.70||3C|
|Choose 4 of BW - MW - WW - VE||6||$10.00||$3.95||4C|
This is a larger culture used to start multiple mother cultures OR as shown below, be used out of the bag as a medium Ready To Feed (RTF) culture so you will not have to wait a week to feed those hungry fry.
The image to the right was taken 30 minutes after a quick start culture was placed in the container. The worms are already climbing the sides and ready to feed with the swipe of a finger. While you are feeding from these mature cultures, you can take a couple spoon-fulls and start a new mother culture going per the very complete instructions you get when you purchase your culture. This culture has simply been poured into an empty container. For even more versatility you can pour it over a quarter to half inch of cooked oatmeal and start a culture while feeding from it!
This culture is over a half pound of mature mother culture ready to feed as many fry as you have. You can feed from these very shortly after set-up, and there is plenty to start a backup or two as well. The culture comes in two, 5 ounce bags that are the working upper portion of one of my shoe-box mothers transported to your fish room.
Begin by preparing a container for your culture. Here I use a sandwich size plastic container and cut a rectangular vent in the lid, covering it with thin muslin cloth to keep pests out. The cloth square is taped in place along its edges.
Once the container is ready, put about 1/2" to 3/4" of cooked, COOLED, oats in it. They should be shiny-wet but not soupy. Oats that are too dry will mold. I prefer the Old Fashioned oats that cook for five minutes because they hold up longer than the instant. Some use mashed potatoes or even a slice of bread. Many sources of carbohydrate will work.
NOTE: These instructions are based on using a two ounce starter. If you have a larger amount of starter or a Ready To Feed (RTF) culture, then use a larger container. Size it so a 1/2" of oats topped with your starter brings you to less than an inch total depth. You always want more surface area and not too much depth.
If you got your starter from me it will be sealed into a plastic bag. This happens to be micro worms. The easiest way to get the starter into your container is to snip off one corner and then pipe it out like cake frosting.
Starter placed on medium. I always ship a little extra so no worries about the small amount left in the bag, just toss it.
Your culture is ready to close up and put on a shelf somewhere out of direct sunlight. A cool place in the room temperature range works well. They will be fine in any temperature you are comfortable in. They toleratecold better than heat, and a culture will cycle faster in higher temps, shortening it's useful life.
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Vinegar eels are by far the easiest live food to culture. I've got jugs that have been working for more than a year. To start a culture, rinse out a gallon jug and fill it to where it begins to narrow with a 50/50 mix of cider vinegar and dechlor water. Then add four or five slices of peeled apple. The skin can contain pesticides. Finish by adding the starter and plugging the jug with fliter floss or rubber-banding a thin cloth in place to keep out flies and allow air in.
Date the jug and put it in a cool dark place at room temp and that's it. Agitate it once a week or so with a $store baster and you'll be ready to feed from it in 4-6 weeks. I advise starting a second jug about three weeks in using a few ounces from your first jug as a starter.
A month or so later.........To see if your culture is ready to use, pull some up in a baster and check with a magnifier or just viewing with a light source behind the baster. When you see lots of vineger eels it is ready. I harvest with a coffee filter put in a funnel made from the cut off top of a two liter soda bottle. You can also get a funnel at the $store. Put a few ounces of your culture into the filter and let it drain completely. The funnel sits in a clean catch jar.
Here the vinegar has drained into the catch-jar and the vinegar eels are in the filter paper.
Return the filtered vinegar to the culture jar. If the culture is older and is starting to lose its sharp vinegar smell, then just discard this filtered vinegar and add fresh vinegar water mix to the culture.
Use fresh water to rinse the vinegar off of the vinegar eels in the filter paper. Toss the rinse water afterwards.
Collect the vinegar eels by turning the filter paper inside out and swishing it thoroughly in a container of fresh dechlor or tank water.
Vinegar eels harvested and ready to feed to fry.
Feed the fry! A very small live food that swims and triggers the strike response of very tiny fry, and stays alive and doesn't foul the tank.
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Abbreviations: MW = Micro Worm, BW = Banana Worm, WW = Walter Worm
Nematodes are difficult to identify even for experts. The differences between these three are best seen at the level of whole cultures and with experience. MW are the largest, reproduce slowest and don't stay alive quite as long as the others in water. BW and WW are smaller, reproduce faster, and last a bit longer in water. Some say the WW stays up in the water column longer, but I have not verified that. For smallest fry I use WW. For larger fry and small fish I use MW. The worm 'in the middle' in most respects is the BW.
They do not eat the medium! Free living nematodes like these are bacterivores, meaning that they eat very small organisms like bacteria and yeast cells. So why the oatmeal? The oatmeal, or any other carbohydrate that you use, is broken down by living yeast cells and bacteria that in turn are eaten by the worms. It is a miniature ecosystem wherein yeast 'eats' the carbs in the oats, then the worms eat the yeast.
Here I am using a 12" x 8" size shallow, plastic, food storage container. These are readily available at most $stores. Surface area is more important than depth, and 1" is a good depth for these worms.
Cut a vent into the lid and cover it with a piece of thin muslin cloth taped in place around the edges. Air passes through this and pests are blocked. A yard of this is just a few bucks at Walmart or a fabric store and lasts forever.
You can use any size container you wish. Some use a smaller container at first then expand to larger containers as the culture grows. Use the same construction for any size container.
Next add the medium. Here I am using a mixture of coconut fiber called coir and vermiculite. The coir is inexpensive and readily available on Amazon in compressed bricks. I hydrate mine in a 5 gallon bucket per directions on the brick, then cover it and store in the same bucket. Using boiling water to hydrate also sterilizes it.
The vermiculite buffers moisture and moderates the compacting of the medium as the culture ages. Proportions aren't critical, but 60/40 coir/vermiculite is a good mix. Mix the medium thoroughly with a clean spoon.
You can also use potting soil that does not have any fertilizer or other additives. CAUTION if using potting soil you must sterilize it thoroughly to avoid introducing mites. Dampen it, then sterilize by either microwaving for several minutes until it is quite steaming hot, or by baking it in a conventional oven at about 300F for a half hour, again until it is steaming hot. Mix it intermittently during this process to make sure it is cooked through to kill any mites or eggs. You can also boil it then cool and dry it.
A cover plate is needed for the medium. Any lightweight, preferably transparent plastic will do. In the past I've used clear mylar sheeting from the craft store, but recently I've come across these translucent plastic mats that are two for $1.00, at the $store of course!
Trace the outline of the bottom of your container, then cut it out
Ideally it will just about fully cover the medium in your culture container. Verify that it fits well, then set it aside while you finish preparing the medium for the introduction of worms.
Judging the proper moisture level is a learned skill. Moisture builds up as a culture ages, so it needs to be moist but not too wet to begin with. A spray bottle of water ($store again) is a good tool for adding water. Give it a few spritzes, then using the spoon work the water in evenly, breaking up clumps.
When the medium just holds together when squeezed, and no water comes out you are at a good point. Remember it is much easier to add moisture than it is to remove it, so take your time.
Container and medium are now ready! Time to add grindal worms and start your culture.
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Infusoria refers to the many microscopic and near microscopic life forms found in fresh water habitats. When the smallest fry hatch in nature, infusoria is their first food. It is small enough for them to swallow, and it moves, triggering their strike reflex. Raising very small fry in the artificial environment of the fish room is challenging. Your chances of success increase dramatically if you provide the live micro foods needed to get the fry through those critical first days.
Paramecium are the primary organism in the infusoria cultures used in the hobby. They are single celled, slipper shaped, and move effortlessly using a fringe of tiny hairs called cilia as synchronized oars. The cilia also direct food into their oral groove which functions as a mouth. They are bacterivores eating bacteria, yeasts, and single celled algae. They are just visible to the unaided eye as white specks, and at an average 225 microns the species I work with are about half the length of a newly hatched brine shrimp nauplii. Their diameter though is just a fraction of that of the brine shimp nauplii. Reproduction is primarily by fission (dividing in two) and occurs two to three times a day depending on temperature, with warmer temps speeding up division. Life span is measured in divisions, and is usually between 200 and 300 divisions.
The first step in culturing paramecium is selecting a container, and getting a bacterial bloom going to feed the paramecium. They are bacterivores, consuming bacteria, yeast, and some species of cyanobacteria. I am using a cut-off, clear, two-liter Pepsi bottle for this tutorial. It is well rinsed out and filled with dechlorinated tap water at room temperature. If you are comfortable, the temperature is fine for paramecium. Several pieces of lettuce are added, and I put in four or five drops of milk to kickstart bacterial growth.
The paramecium do not eat the lettuce. It is broken down by bacteria of decay, and it is these bacteria that the paramecium feed on. You could use some rice or wheat grains, or another leafy vegetable. I like lettuce because I can dehydrate a whole head of it and store it in a baggie for use as needed. Once the culture is set up I label it with the start date and put it on a shelf in the fish room.
In 24 to 48 hours you should see the culture starting to cloud up. That is the bacteria breaking down the lettuce, and means it is ready for paramecium to be added.
If you are using one of my four ounce paramecium starters you should order it when you start the culture container, so it arrives just about when the container is ready for seeding. This starter contains paramecium from my long running mother cultures. There are enough to get your culture going in four or five days.
Paramecium and other infusoria are usually present in our tanks. If you want to try culturing without a starter, you can hunt wild protists in the bottom mulm and among javamoss and other plants, in filter sponges and filter floss, and in your substrate. Collecting samples from all of these places and using them to seed the culture will sometimes produce a good mixed infusoria culture. If you go this route, just be sure to avoid introducing planaria and other unwanted guests.
While they are large enough to be seen with the unaided eye if your vision is good, I suggest getting a magnifying glass for a clearer look. A good magnifier is a very useful tool in the fish room, and a worthwhile investment. I also include pipettes to help with harvesting and and transferring paramecium.
Here at four days since seeding, the culture is doing well and populated enough to harvest from. These cultures have a cycle that starts with a big bacterial bloom, followed by a surge in the paramecium population, and a corresponding decrease in bacteria. I harvest with a pipette or baster, and pull from where the paramecium are thickest, usually around the dacaying lettuce. When the paramecium population goes down, adding more lettuce or whatever you are using to promote bacterial growth bumps up the paramecium population.
If I'm feeding a small container like a petri dish, then drops are in order. Larger fry containers or small tanks can take more. Unless you are raising fry by the natural method, it is good practice to start them in smaller water volumes. Fry should literally swim in their food.
The culture water has an ammonia level, so don't overdo it. There should be a lot more fry container water than added culture. A little goes a long way too, since this is a food that stays alive until eaten! If filtration is used in the fry container, turn it off or down for awhile when feeding this, since it can be taken up in the filter. Using paramecium the first few days with really small fry significantly improves survival.
These cultures do produce an odor as the bacteria count peaks. I always put a loose cover on the cultures to help contain it and keep pests out. A round plastic cover like the one that comes on oatmeal boxes works well. Culturing in unmodified two liter bottles, as shown above, is another way to minimize odor. Some have a filter floss plug, while others just have the cap sitting loosely in place, allowing the culture to breathe. To feed from the narrow neck bottles just pour a bit of culture out into a small, open top container.
To keep a culture producing, when the medium clears simply add a bit more lettuce or whatever you are using instead. This should generate a fresh bacterial burst, and a corresponding increase in paramecium. After two or three weeks, you can start a second bottle to have one going when the first gives out. Using smaller amounts of lettuce in backup cultures creates smaller paramecium populations that are more sustainable for a longer time. When needed to feed fry, you can add more and start fresh cultures.
Feel free to experiment with different 'foods' for these cultures. I am currently working with yeast as a possible alternative to bacteria of decay. There are also a number of alternative techniques to explore on YouTube. As with most aspects of the hobby, there are many ways to achieve a good outcome! I usually have these starters in stock and they can be ordered by email or contact form from this website, or from the live foods section on AquaBid, where I sell as fishguy_1955. Pricing is here below.
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