Homegrown Food - Totally Tubifex

Posted by Aquatropic Staff on April 13, 2023

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There was a time (not a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away) but right here, where feeding live foods was very commonplace and the quality of that food was rarely thought about. Every aquarium store you went into had feeder goldfish, feeder guppies, ghost shrimp, tubifex worms, meal worms, red worms, black worms, earthworms and the list goes on. In our opinion, this is still good practice as not having these foods available means that aquarists have to rely on bait shops for live food and the history of those foods isn't tracked in the same way.

That being said, today's hobbyists don't have to rely on live and frozen foods as heavily to get their fish and inverts a healthy, varied diet. The increase in quality of both flake and pellet foods has increased dramatically in the last 15 years. Today, we feed pellet foods from Nutramar in some percentage to the vast majority of the fish we house. Nothing can offer a more complete nutrient profile, higher protein density in this digestible of a package. Nutramar's pellets also the benefits of shelf stability and ease of measurement, which can be done by weight or volume; a vastly easier process than with thawed (wet) foods.

All this being said, there is still a place for live food, and your local fish store probably still stocks some live food items for you. There are some fish that just won't take frozen food initially, let alone pellets and flakes, but there are almost no fish that won't eat things like live Artemia and Tubifex worms. Many fish breeders feed tubifex to young fish or to breeding age fish to bring them into spawning condition. So why would you feed them? Primary for a varied diet and expanded nutritional / bacterial profile, secondarily because some fish that are tricky feeders initially will ravenously eat tubifex, (this will work in your marine tank too, though the tubifex won't live as long.) This brings us around to this week's live food topic, culturing your own Tubifex worms.

Tubifex are an annelid (just like an earthworm), aquatic, colonial worm that can live in high oxygen demand environments. They occur naturally in the sediments of lakes, ponds and estuaries, where they consume fish rotting detritus and fish waste. They are also found in septic systems, city sewers and the filters / overflows of commercial fish farms. The fish farms and dedicated fish food culture operations are where the vast majority of commercially available tubifex come from these days. Tubifex grow and reproduce rapidly under good conditions that are easy to maintain. They are very nutritious and irresistible. Tubifex came under fire as a food some years back because it can host Myxobolus cerebralis which can cause diseases in fish stocks. If you are getting your tubifex from a Local Fish Store, this is likely from clean culture, and thus totally safe, but you should always ask where they are sourced from.

Feeding live tubifex is easy; first, you'll want to clean it. If you're feeding your own culture, a single rinse is fine, but if your tubis are coming from anywhere else, you'll want to flush them out. In this case, remove 80% or more of the water they are in, and replace it with clean (non-chlorinated) water. Swish it around and pour off the dirty water. Repeat this process a few times until the water rinses clear and then put them in the fridge overnight (warn the other people in your house, no one likes to open a Tupperware expecting soup and seeing a tubifex colony!) If the water they are in is clear in the morning, they are ready to feed (they are also ready to be moved into your culture if you're planning raising your own). The next step is simply to drop an appropriately sized chunk in your tank and watch the mayhem


There are a few different sizes of worms we've seen offered and over time, it's been our experience that the larger worms are easier to culture, although none of them are that difficult. Culturing your own only takes a few things. You need a small container, clean water, growth medium and food. Some growth mediums like rice sludge will also work as a food source. Next, we suggest you take a few minutes to watch a couple videos. You'll find that there are many ways to culture tubifex, but that they all boil down to the same few steps. For the hobbyist, most of the instructional videos you see will produce tubifex worms vastly in excess of your needs, so think small.

A good way to do this on a small scale is to use scrub sponges for the growth medium; the algae scrub pads from Lifeguard are a good choice. Your LFS will likely have them, or something like them. These pads should be dipped in boiling water, swished a bit and then put into a bowl, something like a coverable Gladware. This doesn't need to be massive, but we find that having the larger sizes like potluck or even oven sizes can give you more time between water changes and feeding. You don't need any depth to the container as you only add enough water to come to the top layer of the sponge without covering it with more than 1/16 of an inch or so. Make sure this is cool to the touch before moving on.

Now you just need to add food and your starter colony. The easiest way to do this is to drop a few pellets of whatever fish food you have on hand (which is Nutramar right?) onto the sponge, and then drop a small portion of your live tubifex colony on the food. You can use other things for food. We've seen dog food kibble, soybean powder, whey powder, cooked rice or other grains and even cow dung. Fish food works very well, is nutritionally complete, is convenient and doesn't stink up the place. Another way to add food is to mix it into the water. You can mix any nutritional powder, (rice hulls work too) with water and a small amount of dry yeast, let it sit for 12 – 24 hours and then pour that in at your next water change. Tubifex respond well to fermenting food for some reason.

Now starts a waiting game. Your tubifex can grow in the nastiest sludge/poo mix you can think of, but they will grow much more quickly in clean water with consistent food. We recommend changing out as much water from your basin as you can once a day (or more if you're really into water changes!) Some people will use a baster or large syringe for this, and this works fine. If you are using the pad method you can just gently lift the pad, making sure your colony stays on top of it, pour out the water, replace the pad and then replace the water (or add the fermenting mix). That's the whole game. In a week or so you should be noticing substantial growth. In a couple weeks your pad will be overrun if you haven't started pulling colonies and feeding them, you'll need to soon. If you're having slow growth, try to keep the container in a slightly warmer area, adjust feeding or water changes. You can cover the culture, but make sure to poke some air holes in the cover. As a side note, some cats and dogs seem to love the smell of this and will get into it if you leave it somewhere accessible. Just keep this in mind.

So, there you have it. You have now taken the first steps toward culturing all sorts of live foods for yourself! Maybe your LFS will even give you store credits for some of your tubifex! This culture will keep producing food for you as long as you keep feeding it and doing water changes. Over time, you can adapt this process to better meet your needs. You'll learn how much to feed, how often the water changes need to happen and how much to harvest at a time to keep everything humming along. For people in warm climates, this can be done outside on a constant drip system eliminating the water changes for yourself! We hope you found this useful, and if you are having some picky fish, try feeding them some of your own home grown tubifex today!