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Live Food for the Aquarium
by Jay Exner

Why Bother with Live Food?

The reasons to obtain live food for your freshwater aquarium are many. Fish do not eat processed food in the wild; most hunt for a living. Eating other creatures is natural for them, so if you want to see your fish behave as they might in the wild, give them live food. In captivity, some tropical fish will not breed unless they are given live food. In fact, some fish won't even eat food unless it is alive. It's just a requirement to elicit a feeding response in those fish (example: Belonesox belizanus, the Pike Livebearer).

Processed food (pellets, flakes, freeze-dried critters) costs money, but some live food is 100% free: all you need to do is find it. Once you have located suitable animals, all you need to do is decide whether you need to culture them at home, or if you can continue to obtain them from the original source. Example: earthworms -- you might not want to culture them indoors, but instead dig them out of your garden every few days. It all depends on how much space and free time you have, among other variables.

Dried processed foods can lose nutritional value from the time you open the sealed container, whereas live foods are always at the peak, and you can enhance that value if you feed your cultures with vitamin-enriched substances. Again, I'll use earthworms as an example: you can feed them vegetable scraps like carrot peels to enhance the levels of carotenoids in their bodies.

Processed foods are not without their value; in fact pellets and flakes are more nutritious pound for pound than an exclusive diet of brine shrimp, and certainly containers of food are very convenient. But, if you only ever feed your fish processed foods, you aren't experiencing one of the most interesting aspects of the aquarium hobby -- and the fish aren't experiencing one of the main focuses of their natural existance: to catch and eat live food!

Which Live Food?

There are so many varieties of live food that I couldn't begin to name them all. Movement that attracts one fish is ignored by another. Not all fish eat moving creatures: some are vegetarians (and I don't plan to cover plants as live food).

The foods I will cover in this brief article are the ones I have had the most experience with.

Common NameLatin NameDifficultyRemarks
redworms, nightcrawlers
Easy to Collect

Medium to Breed
Excellent whole
for large fish or diced for small fish.
Fathead MinnowsPimephales promelas,
Easy to Breed
Good for piscivores.
Green WaterInfusoria (algae
and unicellular creatures)
Easy to make
(year round).
Necessary for
small egg-laying fish larvae. Good for culturing mosquito larvae and daphnia.
Brine ShrimpArtemia salinaEasy to Hatch
(year round);

Medium to Breed
Just hatched
brine shrimp are an excellent first food for most baby fish.
Mosquito LarvaeAnopholes,
Easy to Hatch

Harvest before they reach adulthood!
Excellent food
for surface dwelling fish, like killifish and livebearers.
Water FleasDaphniaMediumGood for most

It probably isn't necessary for you to raise live food year round unless your are a die-hard hobbyist and you have fish that refuse to eat anything else. But you should be able to get through the warm months of the year feeding live food to your fish without much difficulty. I generally feed processed foods to my fish over the cold months, supplementing with newly hatched brine shrimp and frozen food. When it gets warm enough, I will go outside and start numerous cultures of mosquito larvae, brine shrimp, and daphnia. My fish will get live food supplemented with occasional processed flake foods until the end of the season.

How Do I Raise Live Food?

Earthworms can be cultured indoors, in a large wooden box in a cold basement, year round. There is commercially available bedding materials (in the sporting goods section of most department stores), but dirt is essentially what they live in. Earthworms don't like their dirt too moist or too dry, and nothing smells worse than rotting dead earthworms -- so I no longer culture them. I suggest you check out my sources for more specific culturing information, and I'll stick to collecting my worms on parking lots only during spring, summer, and fall... Just remember -- a clean worm is a healthy worm, so never take worms from chemically treated soil. Earthworms can survive for several days submerged in water in your refrigerator, which allows most of the soil in their gut to pass through their system, so that you won't dirty your tanks as much. I usually stick earthworms under very hot tapwater to kill them humanely prior to chopping them up with a razor blade (or cutting large ones apart with surgical scissors) to feed them to smaller fish, like killies. It is important not to overfeed!

Fathead minnows, and their pink (albino?) form, the Rosies, are so prolific and easy to breed and raise that I'll say very little. You can have seemingly limitless numbers of these fish, from very tiny up to 3 inches (7.5cm) in length by placing a dozen or so in a garden pond which isn't too clear. Apparently, they find each other and don't know when to quit breeding. Starting with that small number doesn't seem to matter -- you will have thousands in a couple months. Probably any species of minnow that can survive in a garden pond would work just as well, but the rosies are nice because they are visible even in murky conditions. The normal fatheads are not normally visible, but at least the males change in appearance during mating, and almost act like cichlids. These fish are available from pet and bait stores in the Northeast U.S., but I have no idea where else they are available.

Green water is lower than pond scum. Actually, it IS pond scum -- infusoria. It consists of various algaes and single-celled creatures, and if you hold it up to the light and the solution isn't too dense, you may be able to see some of these creatures (they are very small, but still barely visible). The best way to make green water is to put old aquarium water from your fish tank into a clear container and place it in a sunny window for a few days. Some sources recommend putting a thumbnail-sized piece of dried lettuce to water and putting it on the windowsill, and others suggest placing a handful of grass lawn clippings in water and putting it on the windowsill. What I've found is that the windowsill fills up really quickly! Seriously, all of the above will work eventually. If your water is especially soft and acidic, you might find that the water greens up faster if you add a pinch of baking soda (Sodium bicarbonate). Just be sure you don't dump pH adjusted water in with sensitive fish.

Brine shrimp are easy to hatch, but a little harder to raise to adulthood than most hobbyists will bother with. Hatching instructions will certainly accompany the eggs, plus they frequently are listed with the popular brands of salt mixes (both marine mixes and the various freshwater salt mixes). I've found that getting large numbers of brine shrimp to reach adulthood is simple: do it outdoors! You will need a large shallow container, such as a kiddie swimming pool. I use rectangular, black, plastic containers which are marketed as lotus planters or cement mixing tubs, depending on where I shop. They can hold about 25 U.S. gallons (~90 liters). I usually dump whatever leftover brine shrimp culture water I have indoors from my winter cultures into one of these containers and place it in my garden in springtime, where it will get direct sun for the entire day. If necessary, I will top it off with additional salt water, but because my old culture water has some brine shrimp and plenty of unhatched eggs, I don't need to add any eggs. In a couple weeks, this container will be teaming with brine shrimp without any human intervention. Surprisingly, I normally don't need to add additional salt, even though the container overflows from rainfall fairly often.

Mosquito larvae are probably the easiest live food to obtain and raise. You need to meet the conditions that mosquitos are looking for in order to lay eggs, and they will do everything else. I've found that filling a garbage can or a mixing tub with water, adding either a nylon bag of cow manure or just dumping a couple handsful of dried chicken manure to the water and waiting a few days is all that is required. Again, my stuff sits out in the middle of my garden in full sun, but you may find better luck in partial shade. The water turns brown from the manure and then probably green from algae. Then black from all the floating mosquito larvae. Remember that the source of food for your mosquito larvae is green water and/or bacteria feeding on the manure -- watch what you get that water on, and wash your hands! Many people recommend rinsing live food from such containers in a net under running tapwater before adding them to your tanks. I usually bring a container of tapwater out to the garden, net the larvae, and just put the larvae into the clean water (and say, "Close enough!").

Daphnia, or water fleas, are a crustacean like brine shrimp (or lobsters, for that matter). They have feathery, antenna-like legs which are used to pull themselves through the water and at the same time scoop up infusoria and algae for them to feed on.

Water Liquid Nature Leaf Rectangle

Daphnia species vary in size, the largest (Daphnia magna) reaching just under 1/4 inch (~6mm) in length. The only difference between raising daphnia and mosquito larvae is that daphnia will require calcium in the water (in order to grow their exoskeletons). Mosquito larvae could care less about calcium, so add a nylon filter bag of crushed coral to your mosquito culture, and you will be all set to raise daphnia in it as well. That's what I do.

Other Issues...

Sometimes, you get more critters than you bargained for in your live food cultures. Not all of these are bad things to have. My daphnia and mosquito larvae cultures always contain bloodworms (midge larvae), ostracods (seed shrimp or clam shrimp), cyclops (another tiny crustacean), etc. Fine and dandy -- all things my fish will eat. What has to be watched out for are more destructive creatures: diving beetles and their larvae, the water tigers; water boatmen; hydras; damselfly and dragonfly larvae; planaria; leeches; and snails. Some of these are fine anyway -- some fish are large enough, bold enough, and just plain dumb enough to chow down any of the above. However, baby fish in your aquaria have no defense against a ruthless dragonfly nymph or water tiger. That's why it's a good idea to really look closely at what you are trying to put in your tank BEFORE you put it in!
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