Fish keepers and breeders have been culturing live food for their fish and other aquatic pets since the hobby began. Live food is natural, high in protein, usually nutritious (and can be gut-loaded with more nutrients), and stimulates the hunting instinct.
Breeders use live cultures to bring their fish into breeding condition. Live fish food is often used in raising baby fish (fry) because the high protein levels increase the growth rate, but it’s important to support that accelerated growth rate with other nutrients required for optimum growth and healthy development. Another benefit of live food cultures is you can raise tiny organisms to feed small fish fry in your aquarium.
Following is an introduction to culturing the most common live fish foods. Further research into methods is always recommended as they do vary.
Equipment Required for Live Fish Food Cultures
Containers: Recycled, disposable or Dollar Store containers will all work for worm cultures. Remember to punch small holes in the lid for air and especially to avoid explosions if yeast is a part of the culture (not saying how I know that). If you have more than one culture, it can’t hurt to label the container with the contents and date the culture was started.
Jars: You can recycle any jar for for small aquatic organisms like Green Water.
Fish tank, barrel or other container: Used for larger aquatic fish food cultures, such as Gammarus or Daphnia. You’ll also need filtration.
Miscellaneous accessories: Some cultures require a unique setup that requires a few miscellaneous accessories, such as airline tubing.
Storage of Live Fish Food Cultures
Some cultures are more sensitive to heat than others, but all should be kept in a cool location (low 70’s as a rule). You can place the culture in a styro box in the Summer with a few ice cubes in a bag, a lunchbox cold pack, a small bottle of frozen water, etc.
Tip: Start new cultures on a regular basis to ensure a stable and prolific population.
Live Fish Food Cultures for Aquarium Fish
Green Water – Tiny Newborn or Culture Food
Green Water is suspended algae.
Culture: The most common method is to add grass clippings to water, add a bit of plant fertilizer and place the mixture in a well-lit location – preferably in front of a window or outside in the Summer. Be careful with the fertilizer if you intend to feed the culture directly to the fish tank of fry as it can cause a build-up of phosphates
You can also use the ‘messier’ fish or snails to feed the Green Water culture in lieu of fertilizers. I prefer snails because they also contribute infusoria to the mix, resulting in a more nutritionally complete, natural fish food cocktail, and keep the sides of the tank clean so the light is allowed through. Since I raise snails, it is a wonderful place for the babies to grow while contributing to the system. Do not use too many though, or the culture will smell horrible.
Infusoria – Newborn Fry Food
Some fish are born amazingly small, such as Neon Tetras and some Rainbowfish species. To feed these fish after they are free-swimming, you may require Infusoria. The great thing about Infusoria cultures, is that you don’t need to obtain a starter culture.
Infusoria is a mix of various tiny creatures used to feed the smallest fish fry. Basically, it is a mix of mini Rotifiers. To start an Infusora culture, you will need a jar and food. Place a bit of your food of choice into a jar and fill it up with aquarium water. A couple of days later you may notice foggy water, at which point you can remove a small amount of water and add more aquarium water. Within a week, you should have clear water and begin to see little critters in there.
Food: Infusorians feed on bacteria created by decaying organics. It doesn’t take much to feed them and the less food there is, the less smell there is. I have had them show up in a stagnant small tank that I forgot about, so its not rocket science. You can use established tank water/mulm, aquarium plants, hay, lettuce, etc.
Note: Apple Snails ‘produce’ infusoria in their feces – they work with their digestive system to digest food. Keeping them in your fry tanks ensures a constant supply of infusorians. They’ll also serve as janitors while they’re at it.
Often lumped in with Infusoria, Paramecium is cultured quite differently. They’re so incredibly tiny, they should not be raised in tank water because they may be eaten by other microorganisms. The water should be boiled or distilled. Paramecium will live for quite some time in your tank.
Food: Paramecium feeds on bacteria. Slightly boiled kernels of wheat, Liquifry, corn husks, etc will facilitate the bacteria growth. Add the food and 1/4 tsp of brewer’s yeast to the jar of water, stirring well. Add your Paramecium culture. Cover and store in a cool place.
Harvest: You should be able to harvest in a couple of weeks or so. Use a large eye-dropper or turkey-baster to harvest the Paramecium and squirt it into the fry tank.
Vinegar Eels – Tiny Newborn Food / Transition Food
Vinegar Eels can be used as a transition food between micro-cultures (such as Infusoria) and BBS. A big advantage of Vinegar Eels is that they can stay alive in fresh water for weeks.
Culture: In your container of choice, add 1/4 – 1/2 of an apple. Fill the container about 3/4 of the way with a 50/50 mix of water and Apple Cider Vinegar.
Harvest: The Vinegar Eels will be ready to harvest in about a month. Use a turkey baster or eye-dropper to bring the Eels out of the culture and squirt them into a coffee filter placed in a funnel or small strainer. Gently rinse the Eels a couple of times in the filter, and then swish the filter into a container of water. Feed using a turkey baster or eye-dropper.
Microworms – Newborn / Transition Food
Microworms are a food between the size of Green Water and Brine Shrimp. They are often recommend for Rainbowfish as a starter food, but any newborn fish will enjoy them, in my experience, including small newborn Livebearer fry.
Culturing Microworms couldn’t be easier by comparison to other live foods. Prepare some oatmeal and/or baby cereal to keep them in. After experimenting I decided on a mixture of both. Top it off with a bit of active yeast, and mix it all up with some water until it is very moist. Stir in a little extra-virgin olive oil to increase the culture yield/growth, as well as to benefit the fish it’s fed to through a higher amino acid content and improved vitamin profile. Add your starter culture, place a ventilated lid on the container, and place in a cool area. In a week or two there should be plenty of wiggly worms on the sides of the container. Supplement with finely ground seaweed/algae if you wish.
Harvest: Use a cotton swab, popsicle stick, etc, to scrape the worms off the sides. You can either drop them into water and extract them with an eye-dropper, or feed directly. Be careful not to add the food mixture with them though, or you’ll foul the tank.
BBS – Baby Brine Shrimp (Artemia) – Fry Food
This is the live fry food that most are familiar with. BBS are shrimp larvae which are hatched into salt water. They are most nutritious within eight hours of hatching as they still have the egg remnants attached.
Culture: Culturing isn’t difficult, but it is a little more involved than the other starter foods. You can purchase BBS hatcheries or build your own using DIY instructions found online. The basic items include an air pump, airline tubing, your hatchery of choice, non-iodized salt, Brine Shrimp eggs and a Brine Shrimp net (which doubles as a great net for fry). Measurements may vary, but basically you add 1/2L of water, get it bubbling using the pump/airline tubing, add 1/4 tsp of Brine Shrimp eggs & 1 TBSP of non-iodized salt.
Harvest: Brine Shrimp eggs take about 24 hours to hatch. When they are ready, stop the pump and siphon the shrimp into a brine shrimp net or cheesecloth. You use the siphon to both remove and separate the Shrimp from the hatched eggs. Empty the BBS into a container of fresh water and use an eye-dropper or turkey baster to feed.
Gammarus – Junior or Small Fish Food
Gammarus amphipods (Scuds) are a very small shrimp-like creature commonly found in freshwater. They are very easy to culture, not in the least sensitive or demanding in my experience. I have a 10G swarming with them as we speak and I’ve totally ignored them in regards to special care. They like to cling to plants, including floaters, or they hide in gravel, under driftwood, etc. The live plants probably supplies them with rotting plant matter & fungi. They will also eat seaweed powder which can be used to gutload them. They’re high in calcium and a good source of roughage.
Grindle Worms: Junior or Small Fish Food
These worms have long been used as a transition from the usual fry foods to larger live foods, or for smaller adult fish, such as Endler’s Livebearers or Killifish.
Bedding: Coconut Fiber or peat moss. The latter may prove to be too acidic, in which case you can mix it with the Coconut Fiber or sterilized gardening soil with no additives. The bedding should be damp. Place the bedding into a container and add your starter culture.
Food: Dampen a very small amount of multi-grain or oatmeal baby cereal and sprinkle it on top, preferably in one small area of the surface.
Harvest: The worms will be massed in the feeding area. When you want to feed them to your fish, simply remove a portion and feed. If you find that they have too much bedding coming with them, they may be rinsed. Alternately, you can lightly spray a piece of glass or plastic with dechlorinated water, dust with food and lay it in the container. You can use a small rock to keep one side slightly elevated and out of the dirt for a cleaner harvest. When you see a bunch of worms on the glass/plastic, you can use a cotton swab or popsicle stick to scrape the worms off for feeding.
Daphnia – Nature’s System Restore
There are a large number of Daphnia species, varying in size, with some species being smaller than BBS at birth. The most common species appear to be Pulex and Moina, with the latter being smaller. They are most often fed to small fish as a conditioning food, or to clean out their digestive system / treat constipation. Daphnia can be somewhat sensitive to environmental changes and water quality, so this method of producing live food takes a bit of dedication.
Culture: Many people culture their Daphnia in established Green Water cultures, which keeps the water pure and feeds the Daphnia. Otherwise, you may use a tank filled to about the halfway point with water treated to remove metals, the larger the tank the better. You can culture Daphnia in smaller tanks with diligence. The Daphnia starter culture should be temperature acclimated and then added by slowly immersing the culture into the water.
Food: Green Water is the food of choice for Daphnia most of the time. When that isn’t practical, you can use small fry foods, tiny amounts of pre-mixed yeast, very finely ground seaweed/algae or seaweed paste, or organic matter.
!Warning! Ethoxyquin, a preservative found in most processed fish food, has been proven to be highly toxic to Daphnia.
Harvest: Daphnia is best harvested daily once established.
I recommend further reading about culturing Daphnia as it is much more involved than I have covered here as an introduction.
Whiteworms – Adult Food or Large Junior Fish
Whiteworms can survive in water for a few days. They will burrow under gravel, however, so they are recommended for either bare or lightly graveled tanks, or tanks with ‘digging’ scavengers, such as Loaches. You don’t want a bunch of dead worms decaying in your gravel.
Culture: Whiteworms should have a sterile, moist bedding and be kept in a well-ventilated container. They require very cool conditions, preferably in the 60’s.
Food: Cat/Dog food (not the best choice as the mammal fat may reach the fish through the gut of the worms), ground seaweed/algae, ground powdered or mashed veggies, fish food (without ethoxyquin), or baby cereal. Whiteworms are found in decomposing vegetation (including seaweed), making them perfect for veggie gutloading.
Harvest: Place glass or plastic over a shallow hole in the bedding in which you’ll place the worm food. The worms will gather there, facilitating an easy harvest. Rinse and serve.
Live Food for Larger Fish
Fish are able to eat anything that can fit into their mouth/throat. Having large fish means you have more options for providing live fish food, including earthworms, shrimp, smaller fish or fry, and even snails for some species.
The term ‘gut-loading’ refers to feeding the culture highly nutritious food and immediately feeding the loaded live food to your fish. This can vastly improve the nutritional content of the live foods, while also providing a more specialized diet for fish like omni-herbivores. Worms, shrimp and small fish are great candidates for gut-loading. You can feed powdered seaweed to small live organisms for a major nutritional boost, for example, or larger natural foods for bigger live foods. Providing complete nutrition for your fish will facilitate proper development, premium health, optimum immunity and enhanced coloration. We often gutload with powdered seaweed.
Tip: If you produce enough live cultures, you can easily freeze them in dechlorinated ice cubes. Mini ice cube trays are often available at local dollar stores. Cultures can also be used to make your own fish food.
Where to Obtain Starter Cultures
Your local fish club is a great place to find cultures. You can also swap cultures with other hobbyists. Some reptile and fish retailers carry them as well.
Culturing Mosquitos/Larvae – This is a scientific guide to rearing Mosquitoes/Larvae, complete with video. If you gather larvae, raise them to breeders and then breed them, you could have a source of disease-free food which many fish thrive on in the wild.
Have you ever cultured live fish food for your aquarium fish? Please share your experience and tips in the comments below.
✔ You may also be interested in reading:
Top 15 Natural Foods and Herbs for Breeding Fish
Natural Prevention and Treatment of Aquarium Fish Parasites
The Natural Diet of Omni-Insectivorous Aquarium Fish
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