Live Fish Food: Common Types & When You Should Feed Them

With so many diverse prepared foods on the market choosing to feed your fish Live Food seems like a strange choice. Live Fish Food takes additional effort because unlike a can of flakes they won’t remain fresh forever.

Live Foods also often cost more, are messier to work with, and may even last a single feeding! So why should one start using Life Fish Food?


Why Should I Be Using Life Fish Food?

Prepared foods are definitely more convenient and less expensive. However, Live Fish Food has several advantages that prepared foods don’t:

Not All Fish Eat Flakes

Most of the fish you’ll find in an aquarium store are already trained on flakes, pellets, and other prepared items. However, if you’re interested in specialty fish, you may find that live and frozen food is your only option.

Wild caught fish are especially picky in this regard. Live Fish Foods like Bloodworms and Guppies will be accepted without question over flakes that look more like bits of dead leaf debris to a wild-caught carnivore.

Annual Killifish, many wild-caught Cichlids and Characins, and African Butterfly Fish are a few examples of fish that rarely accept flakes or pellets.

Higher Nutritional Content

Live Fish Foods are far more nutritionally complex compared to prepared foods. The predator gains roughage and minerals from skeletons, scales, and shells. Micronutrients and trace elements normally ignored by prepared food manufacturers help bolster immune defense and prime fish for reproductive behaviors as well as egg and sperm production.

Live Fish Food, especially brightly colored foods like Bloodworms, are also rich in carotenoids and other pigments that fish use to boost their red, orange, and yellow hues.

The nutritional boost comes not only from the Live Food itself but from the food you feed them. “Gut Loading” is a term usually reserved for reptile and amphibian keepers. By feeding insects and other prey high quality foods like vegetables and pellets, the carnivore gains the nutritional benefits of the prey’s gut contents.

The same is true for Live Fish Food! Feeding Guppies or Ghost Shrimp flakes gives the fish that eats them the flakes plus the nutrition they gain from their Live Food.

Encourages Natural Behaviors

I’m a big advocate for giving any pet a stimulating environment. Fish should be given diversity just like a dog or a bird. Live Fish Food mixes up their daily routine and if fish feel pleasure I’d imagine a handful of Brine Shrimp would be like a pizza after weeks of broccoli.

Ambush and active hunters are allowed to act out the behaviors their ancestors practiced for millions of years, similar to how a domestic cat will still stalk and bat at a bit of fluff. Those instincts never fade and need to be acted out.

Encouraging natural behaviors is also of benefit for you, the aquarist! Watching your fish actively pursue and enjoy their meal is fascinating and makes feeding that much more fun.

Best Food for Fish Fry

Fish fry are usually tiny and swim poorly. Finding prepared foods that they can consume depends on the fish but many have to see moving items to stimulate feeding.

Cultured Daphnia, baby Brine Shrimp, Microworms, and even single-celled organisms like Green Water Algae and Paramecium can be cultured with ease. These are all nutritious and provide exactly the sort of Live Fish Food young fry would encounter in nature.

Some Live Foods Can Survive Indefinitely

In the right environment Live Fish Foods can be added and left to their own devices. Tubifex and Blackworms can colonize the substrate if not constantly eaten in large amounts. They provide a self-sustaining colony that also consumes detritus and spreads nutrients among plant roots, similar to surface earthworms.

Guppies can find shelter and even reproduce in a planted tank with predatory fish. So long as they have ample space and places to hide it’s unlikely your predators will catch every single one.

When starting a fry tank for future baby fish, a culture of microorganisms like Green Water, Daphnia, or Paramecium can be left indefinitely. Minimal time and effort is needed to ensure the culture continues to thrive until your baby fish are ready for their buffet!


Common Types of Live Foods & How to Raise Them

Here are a few of our favorite types of live fish food:

Brine and Fairy Shrimp

Brine Shrimp are some of the most readily available Live Fish Foods for hobbyists. These are the “Sea Monkeys” that are popular for children’s science kits. As their name suggests, Brine Shrimp are found in hypersaline pools around the world.

Few creatures save flamingos eat them in nature. However, the eggs can last for centuries when kept dry and will hatch in hours when given the right conditions. Since they live in concentrated saltwater environments they will eventually die if not eaten by your fish. Brine Shrimp Nauplii (babies) have a rich yolk sack when they first hatch that is just as nutritious for your baby fish.

Fairy Shrimp are a freshwater alternative that are surprisingly rare in the aquarium trade. Brine Shrimp are raised en masse as scientific model organisms so they are extremely inexpensive and easily obtained. Fairy Shrimp, on the other hand, aren’t commercially farmed so they are somewhat unknown.

Fairy Shrimp hatch in vernal pools and other temporary environments where fish aren’t present. As adults they are slightly larger than Brine Shrimp and are just as nutritious as Live Fish Food. Best of all, the young Nauplii will survive in freshwater indefinitely so long as they have planktonic organisms to feed upon.

  • Scientific Group: Order Anostraca
  • Aquarium Store Availability: Common (Brine) to Rare (Fairy)
  • Ease of Rearing: Easy
  • Suitable For: Young and Adult Fish

Raising Brine and Fairy Shrimp

Brine and Fairy Shrimp have similar care requirements. The major difference is that Brine Shrimp live in saline environments while Fairy Shrimp are purely freshwater creatures.

Fairy Shrimp also tend to grow larger (up to ½ inch) and have temperature requirements that vary depending on the species. Some prefer room temperature water, other need warm temperatures beyond 80 degrees. A few even thrive in waters approaching freezing!

You’ll need to prepare a “yeast soup” food solution using yeast, sugar, and powdered fish flakes for your young Brine or Fairy Shrimp Nauplii. They will also accept Infusoria. Brine and Fairy Shrimp will hatch within 24-48 hours of being added to water.

If you simply need live Nauplii for young fish then you can harvest them immediately. Shrimp Nauplii are attracted to light. Simply place a flashlight near one side of their tank or jar. Within minutes the Nauplii will cluster there for easy harvesting. Brine and Fairy Shrimp reach maturity in 4-8 weeks, depending on the species.

Tubifex and Blackworms

Tubifex and Blackworms are aquatic Annelid, or segmented worms in the same phylum as common Earthworms. Tubifex are found worldwide while Blackworms are native to flowing streams in North America and Europe.

Tubifex are tolerant of a wide range of water conditions and are often found in sewer lines, polluted streams, and farm runoff. They can survive even in environments with nearly no dissolved oxygen thanks to their thin skin and hemoglobin-rich tails that they wave in the water column to breathe.

Their ability to uptake molecules directly through their skin makes them potentially harmful if fed to fish. However the vast majority of Tubifex in the trade are farm raised so there’s little need for concern.

Tubifex worms live in colonies of thousands of individuals. When purchasing Tubifex make sure the entire bunch is bright red and actively moving about. As they die Tubifex turn pink and then white. After death they decay so rapidly the entire colony can die within hours as bacteria and rot spreads.

Blackworms aren’t as common as Tubifex but are another excellent Live Fish Food. Blackworms aren’t as tolerant of poor water and are usually found in clean shallow water environments. They also live in colonies in sediment and muck and will colonize aquarium substrate, feeding on bacteria, fish waste, and other detritus.

Blackworms are slightly larger than Tubifex and will also readily regenerate if an exposed portion gets nipped off by a passing fish. Both species are such a treat for fish that they will gorge themselves and ignore other food, which can cause digestive issues. It’s best to feed Tubifex and Blackworms irregularly.

  • Scientific Name: Tubifex sp. and Lumbriculus variegatus
  • Aquarium Store Availability: Common
  • Ease of Rearing: Moderate
  • Suitable For: Small and Medium Sized Adult Fish

Raising Tubifex and Blackworms

The main challenge in raising Tubifex and Blackworms is ensuring the culture remains clean. Daily or every other day you’ll need to do partial water changes to ensure water quality remains optimal. Once a few worms die they can set off a chain reaction that causes the entire colony to die off.

You’ll also need to provide your worms a substrate to attach to. Fresh soil or mixtures of gravel, sand, and peat are ideal. Blackworms prefer shallow waters high in oxygen but Tubifex will thrive in any water level.

If you have a well cycled aquarium with places to hide and a fine substrate you may even be able to naturalize Tubifex or Blackworms there. They are unlikely to create highly visible colonies as fish will eat them faster than they can reproduce. But they will colonize the substrate over time and provide an occasional snack for your fish.

Both worms will consume anything organic. Blanched vegetables, fish waste, corpses, pellets, and flakes will all be rapidly eaten.

Guppies

Beautiful planted aquarium with Guppies fishes

The humble Guppy is not only one of the first fish aquarists keep but is also a great prey item for predatory fish. Feeder Guppies are wild type and have little of the bright colors of Fancy Guppies.

Guppies are hardy and will breed even in crowded, sterile feeder fish aquariums. Small to medium sized predators like young Arowana and Cichlids, Needlefish, and predatory catfish like Pictus Cats. Large predators with small mouths like Freshwater Eels and Angelfish will also take Guppies with delight.

Raising your own feeder Guppies is best if you have a predator because the overcrowded tanks of pet stores can be rife with disease. Feeding diseased fish to your predator is a great way to pass on illnesses. You can also properly gut load your guppies with flakes and other items.

  • Scientific Name: Poecilia reticulata
  • Aquarium Store Availability: Common
  • Ease of Rearing: Very Easy
  • Suitable For: Small to Medium Sized Fish

Raising Feeder Guppies

Feeder Guppies can be raised like any other fish. They will breed constantly so thick matted plants like Java Moss and Guppy Grass will help keep your colony self-sustaining. While Guppies are tolerant of a wide range of water conditions, keep the water tropical (74-80F) and within a pH range of 6.5-7.5.

Good filtration will ensure optimal health and keep diseases at a minimum. Crowded single species aquariums are particularly bad when it comes to disease so monitor your Feeder Guppy health constantly.

Guppies are especially prone to Ich, Popeye, and Dropsy. A touch of Aquarium Salt helps bolster their immune systems.

Young fry will graze on Infusoria and biofilm within the Java Moss patch until large enough to swim freely. You will lose some to their hungry parents. But a few will always survive with each generation.

Goldfish

Feeder Goldfish are common Live Fish Food choices for people who keep Cichlids, Catfish, Gar, Piranha, and other large predators. Feeder Goldfish are usually 1-3 inches long however 6-8 inch Feeder Goldfish can be found in specialty shops or ordered.

While large and full of nutrition Feeder Goldfish aren’t easy to raise unless you devote a pond and have dozens of adults breeding to ensure small Goldfish available. Given how inexpensive they are, purchasing Feeder Goldfish is better in the long run.

Like Feeder Guppies, Goldfish can carry diseases that can be transmitted to the fish that eats them. Inspect your Feeders carefully for signs of Ich, Popeye, Dropsy, and other illnesses.

  • Scientific Name: Carassius auratus
  • Aquarium Store Availability: Common
  • Ease of Rearing: Difficult
  • Suitable For: Large Predatory Fish

Water Fleas

Water Fleas (Daphnia) are free-swimming aquatic crustaceans that are more or less flea sized when fully grown. Daphnia are found in freshwater bodies around the world and are more common in temperate regions. As filter feeders they normally eat phytoplankton like free swimming algae and single celled organisms like Paramecium.

Even the smallest Daphnia are larger than Brine Shrimp Nauplii and thus aren’t suitable for prey for the smallest of fish fry. Larger fish fry will accept them either immediately or after a couple weeks of growth.

As they are active swimmers and fairly large Daphnia will be rapidly consumed in an aquarium or sucked up into the filter. They won’t survive long enough to reproduce unless provided with still water and substantial plant cover.

  • Scientific Name: Daphnia sp.
  • Aquarium Store Availability: Uncommon
  • Ease of Rearing: Easy
  • Suitable For: Young and Adult Fish

Raising Water Fleas

Daphnia are easy to culture and only require a 5 gallon aquarium in terms of space if you want a self-sustaining colony. Like Fairy Shrimp, you’ll want to have an Infusoria, Green Water, or yeast soup culture prepared to feed Daphnia.

A bubbler or other aeration device will help turn over the water and keep oxygen levels high. Mechanical filtration is best avoided because the flow is too strong and can even kill Daphnia that get sucked up. A gentle sponge filter will provide space for biological filtration yet won’t catch Daphnia.

Daphnia starter cultures can be easily found online. Pet stores also occasionally stock live Daphnia that can help jumpstart the population. As temperate organisms you’ll want to monitor the water temperature – 64 to 72F is optimal for breeding.

Microworms and Vinegar Eels

Microworms are Nematode worms in the genus Panagrellus. While visible to the human eye, these worms are on the border of the microscopic world and feed on single celled organisms.

As a result Microworms need specialty mediums to grow and reproduce. Vinegar Eels (Panagrellus redivivus) are the most common Microworms on the market and as their name suggests, thrive in vinegar rich solutions.

Vinegar Eels are about 1mm long, feed exclusively on yeast, and can be found in beer vats, wheat paste, and other fermenting mediums. Vinegar Eels are some of the best nematode Live Fish Foods because they actively swim throughout the water column. Other Microworms tend to sink and are less attractive as prey.

  • Scientific Name: Panagrellus sp.
  • Aquarium Store Availability: Uncommon
  • Ease of Rearing: Very Easy
  • Suitable For: Fry and Small Fish

Raising Vinegar Eels

Vinegar Eels are very simple to culture, requiring only unchlorinated water, starch, yeast, and a starter batch of Nematodes. You can raise them in a jam or mason jar, small Tupperware dish, or similar container. Easy access while being resealable are key here.

Your Vinegar Eel starter culture will come with specific measurements on how much of each ingredient to provide. As a rough rule of thumb, you can use a ½ inch layer of food starch (wheat flour, oatmeal, cornmeal, etc) and enough water to create a creamy consistency without being too watery.

Next you’ll add your starter yeast and mix it into the starch and water mixture. Eventually the yeast will multiply within the starch as if you were making a bread culture. Last comes the Vinegar Eel culture.

The more you add, the faster the Nematodes will multiply. Within days, you should see tiny 1mm worms milling about the surface of the starch culture and the sides of the container. To harvest them, place the culture on a heat source.

The Vinegar Eels will migrate up along the sides of the container and can be harvested with a spoon, Q-tip, or finger. Every few days give the culture a stir to ensure the yeast has full access to the starch and the Vinegar Eels continue to have yeast.

The culture should smell mildly yeasty to vinegary but not unpleasant, much like bread dough. If it begins to smell of rot and decay, the culture should be discarded.

Infusoria

This is a very broad category of Live Fish Foods consisting of single celled organisms. Paramecium, Green Water Algae, Rotifers, Vorticella, and other creatures too small to see are incredible when viewed under a microscope.

Infusoria are excellent food for the smallest fish fry like Bettas and Ornamental Shrimp. Fairy Shrimp Nauplii, Daphnia, and other Live Foods will also consume Infusoria. Raising Infusoria is also incredibly easy and I’ll be breaking down the process below.

  • Aquarium Store Availability: Rare
  • Ease of Rearing: Very Easy
  • Suitable For: Tiny Fish Fry

Raising Infusoria

Infusoria can be found anywhere water exists in nature. Roadside puddles, natural ponds and lakes, gutters, and bird baths all contain microscopic organisms. However, harvesting from nature is not recommended because it’s nearly impossible to screen out problem organisms.

Dipping a jar into a pond will provide you with tons of Infusoria but also dragonfly larvae, Hydra, snail eggs, and other problem critters. Instead, you’re better off raising Infusoria from your own aquarium!

Simply take aquarium water, place it in a jar, and add a small piece of blanched lettuce. The lettuce will encourage the growth of microorganisms that will eventually feed your fish fry or other Live Fish Foods.

Banana peels, milk, and other culturing agents are sometimes used. However less is definitely more when culturing Infusoria because bacteria will also grow and you don’t want your water conditions to grow toxic.

As the water becomes cloudy with Infusoria growth you can siphon off small amounts to feed small fish fry!


Conclusion

The list of possible Live Fish Foods is much longer than what’s mentioned here. I included the most common and easiest to raise Live Foods. Some other items you might find in stores, bait shops, or in nature include Ghost Shrimp, Earthworms, Crickets, Cyclops, and Bloodworms.

Hopefully this guide helps you pick Live Fish Foods that add diversity to their diet and encourage breeding behavior!

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