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Live food for breeding tropical fish - to get fish in good condition

Updated on January 29, 2015

Live food keep fish healthy

If you keep tropical fish, or cold water fish for that matter, the best food you can give many species is live food. That means small crustaceans, worms and insect larvae that your fish will love to gobble down.

If you are hoping to breed tropical fish then the best way to do so is to get your pairs of fish into the best possible health and that means regular live food to get them in the best condition for breeding. 

There are many forms of live food and some of these are readily available where you live or can be cultured easily enough.  The most popular live foods for adult tropical fish include tubifex worms, bloodworms, daphinia, mosquito larvae and small or chopped earthworms.  Baby fish will usually do well on newly-hatched brine shrimps or nauplii as they are known.

Mosquito larvae

Culex restuans mosquito larva
Culex restuans mosquito larva

Mosquito larvae

Mosquito larvae or "wrigglers" make a wonderful food for most types of fish and gives them a bit of excitement and exercise too in chasing after the fast-moving insects. They can be caught in stagnant water in most places in the world by quickly skimming the top layer with a fine-meshed net and then swilling in a container of water or actually scooping the water up with them in it. If you are not fast enough they will all move down to the bottom and you have to wait for them to be compelled to come back up again to get more air.

In some ways it can be fun catching these wriggling larvae and seeing how many you have managed to catch. Be careful not to get them from water with any form of dangerous chemicals in it and not to introduce any other harmful water creatures though. One way of culturing them deliberately is to leave a bowl or bucket full of water in your garden or in the yard. Female mosquitoes will quickly find it and lay rafts of floating eggs which hatch in days.

The mother insects are not at all fussy as long as the water is stagnant. The larvae feed on micro-organisms they strain out of the water. The very tiny newly-hatched mosquito larvae are great food for fry and the larger ones and the comma-shaped but also fast-moving pupae will be enjoyed by growing fish and adults.

Some species of tropical fish such as the Guppy (Poecilia reticulata ) and aptly named Mosquito Fish (Gambusia affinis) have been purposely introduced in many tropical and subtropical areas to get rid of mosquito larvae in ponds, lakes and marshes.

Mosquito Larvae and Pupae


Bloodworm - chironomus midge larva
Bloodworm - chironomus midge larva


Bloodworms are the bright-red worm-like larvae of the non-biting midge species in the Chironomus genus. Like mosquitoes they are found in stagnant water in many parts of the world and again can be deliberately cultured by leaving bowls, buckets and other containers outside and filled with water. I have even found them in the inner rings of tyres that were thrown on waste ground and had water and muck in them.

Bloodworms like some sort of detritus from rotting leaves or other such material to burrow into and find their food in. They make short tubes but can also swim freely if disturbed or for other reasons.

They can be collected by hand or swilled out in a fine-meshed net and I have even been known to dump a bit of the muddy substrate I found them in straight in the tank and watch my fish have fun hunting the creatures.  Some fish like Corydoras catfish especially seem to love getting real mud from time to time too. I think they find something special in it they cannot get in a clean modern tropical fish tank. 

You can also buy bloodworms already cultured and cleaned. They come as a frozen or dried food too but fish like them live the most.


Tubifex worms


Tubifex worms

Tubifex worms are a wonderful food for tropical fish but the one most likely to come from fouled and polluted water. These worms thrive in dirty water with low oxygen and live in vast quantities in black stinking mud.

I used to collect them as a boy and find them in mud at the edges of the River Taff in Cardiff.  Back in Cardiff it was badly polluted with coal and industrial waste from the Welsh Valleys and although it was too dirty for any water plants to grow in it, several fish somehow survived and tubifex were in Heaven! I used to put the mud I brought back in a bowl and let it dry out in the sun. The tubifex worms would form tight balls in the wetter parts as it dried. They could be picked out without getting a load of dirty mud and water with them. A quick swill and they were ready.

Tubifex worms that escape your fish will hide down in the gravel and often manage to survive there. The worms normally protrude part of their bodies out of the substrate and then to wriggle it around. They make thin tubes they retreat into and most of an adult worm is usually down in the mud. In a tank any surviving worms will give fish something to look out for. Bottom-feeders such as catfish, spiny eels and loaches love hunting for these juicy natural treats.

Living Tubifex can be bought already cleaned and in balls from many tropical fish shops and aquarists but also are sold in frozen and freeze-dried forms. Many fish will take them that way but, the live worms are what fish enjoy the most.. 

Tubifex mass

Daphnia or Water Fleas

Daphnia or Water Fleas, as they are also known, are tiny crustaceans that live in large numbers in stagnant water where they appear to hop in it and hence their common name.  Many fish enjoy chasing and eating these small living foods if added to an aquarium.

They can be caught with very finely-meshed nets in local ponds and canals or cultured in a tank or other utensil of stagnant water. They need some form of rotting vegetation and algae in the water to do well but can be fed on purpose too. 

The easiest way to get Daphnia is buy them in a bag of water from your local tropical fish store or pet shop that sells live food for fish. Like so many live foods they can also be bought dead and in freeze-dried form. Some fish will not eat them like this though, and if I were a fish I could see why! 


In most parts of the world earthworm species are easy enough to find by digging in moist soil and looking under stones. Most tropical and cold-water freshwater fish absolutely love these worms. Of course, small ones are best and can be fed whole to medium to larger sized fish but otherwise they can be chopped up. 

The majority of tropical fish will gorge on earthworms and for some, such as the Spiny Eel, they can become the main part of its diet. 

Earthworms were always a most important live food when I was keeping and breeding tropical fish.  They were easy to get, the fish loved them, and most important they were free! 

A word of caution though: it is no use trying to feed the popular Tiger Worms that are used in compost heaps to help composting. They admit a foul-smelling and tasting liquid and most fish will not touch them.

Brine Shrimp

Brine Shrimp (Artemia salina) are an amazing food for fish. They are also sold as "Sea Monkeys" by the way. This is because the tiny shrimps will easily hatch out in salty water and will spend most of their time 'hopping' about in the liquid. I remember seeing adverts for them in my Superman DC Comix as a boy and never knowing what they were. There were always crazy illustrations and equally crazy descriptions about your pet monkeys and the hours of fun you could get from watching their antics. I am glad I never wasted my money!

But as a live food for baby fish they are almost essential as far as I am concerned. Brine shrimp nauplii, the name for the freshly-hatched ones, hatch out after just a couple of days when the eggs are floated in brine. You can buy thousands of dried eggs and just need to add salt water to get them to hatch.

I used to put a teaspoon of table salt in a saucer of water and swirl it around, then add a pinch of the eggs. Leave for a couple of days in a well lit and warm location and wait for the tiny shrimps to form a conspicuous orange-pink line at the water edge in the most well-lit part of the saucer. I would scoop a spoonful out and feed to the newly-hatched fry. If I had several batches of baby fish I had several saucers on the go and always started new ones so as to be ready when they ran out. There are far more complicated ways of doing it but that method worked for me.

The shrimp will grow if given a larger container of brine and some food. This used to be Liquifry commercially available food for baby fish that was one method of feeding them. I never used to bother with it or rearing the shrimp though but simply fed the newly-hatched ones to my tiny baby fish.

Brine shrimp eggs are harvested on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah by the ton as well as farmed in massive salt water pans in San Francisco Bay. I used to buy the eggs as brown powder in small glass tubes. They worked out very cheap and fed a lot of tiny tropical fish through to when they would eat larger foods.

The adult brine shrimp make a good live food for bigger fish of course too. You can also buy processed and prepared brine shrimp as fish food.

This has been a selection of readily available live foods that are recommended for tropical fish. You will find many more such as aphids and other small insects. Experiment a bit is what I also say, and see if you can find natural foods for your tropical fish. They can't thank you in words but you will see them grow better and be far more likely to breed!

© 2011 Steve Andrews


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    • Bard of Ely profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      7 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you, pmccray!

    • pmccray profile image


      7 years ago from Utah

      Voted up, marked useful and interesting. Thank you for sharing.


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