by Dave Ball
President of the Southern Colorado Aquarium Society
Summer is just around the corner and I’ve got a real bad case of Spring fever. It seems to get worse every year. This is the time of the year when cheap fish food becomes available. What I mean by “cheap” is free food. All you have to provide is time and the containers. Grasshoppers, crickets, and earthworms are starting to show up in the yards, parks, and fields. We’ll get to the first at a later date, the good old earthworm is the subject of the day. How many of you want a fish food that is good for your fish? I mean one that is natural, high in protein and has very low maintenance. Earthworms fit that bill. They are not on the list of foods that fish eat naturally but they eat them anyway. I started my cultures over a year ago when curiosity took hold along with the expense of keeping my larger cichlids and catfish fed properly. I had read several articles on keeping earthworms as fish food. Some people had no luck at all and others had complete success. The people who didn’t have success didn’t seem to give it enough time before harvesting. Others only used one culture or an improper medium.
Earthworms have been farmed for generations just for the fish bait and garden stores. You can go to the library and pick out several books on worm farming and cut it down to suit your needs. If you can, set one up outside. I don’t have that option. For me to set up a worm bed for my fish would be like asking for self-torture. So, a way to set-up an indoor worm culture was my only option. I first went out to a nearby park after a rainstorm collecting some night crawlers just to make sure that my fish would eat this new food. I knew they would, but why go through all of the work if they were going to refuse them? Well, I am sorry to say not a worm survived and some of my fish went on a hunger strike for a few days. Now I’ve spoiled them.
The easiest way to get started is to buy your worms from a farm. You can get a thousand for less than $20.00. That includes shipping and they come to your front door. Mine came from a farm in Bronwood, GA. The cost was $16.00 for the first thousand. That’s under one cent apiece! How’s that for cheap? If you buy bigger lots it gets even cheaper. Where do you find this place? Look in the back of Outdoor Life magazine for the ads under live bait. You will have many choices. I chose critters called “Red Wrigglers”. These are small, About 3″-4″ in length and less than the diameter of a pencil around. Perfect for my needs. They showed up at my door in a little plain brown box with bright hot pink lettering that said “LIVE EARTHWORMS!”. Just joking about the color, but it’s amazing how the word “Live” can be read by family members even when they’re in another room. I was asked what on earth I was going to do with them. “Fish food” was the answer and everybody rolled their eyes. They think I’m nuts.
To get started you need the following:
2 – Plastic sweater boxes (12″ x 8″ x 5″ – larger if room allows)
1 – 8lb. bag Sterile peat moss, no fertilizers
1 – 8lb. bag Sterile Canadian sphagnum moss/peat moss mix, no fertilizers
1 – Starter culture of worms
Now the fun begins! Just kidding; this is real easy. Mix the two kinds of peat moss at a 50/50 ratio in the sweater box. I use the Canadian moss because it helps hold moisture longer without getting packed down too much. This helps when it comes time to feed the worms. After it is mixed (it doesn’t have to be perfect, the worms will do the rest) add some water, just enough to make the soil damp. The best way to check this is to grab some soil in you hand and if you can squeeze a drop of water out of it, it’s just about right to get started. In time you will know just how damp, not moist, to keep your cultures. Make some holes in the lid about the size of a pencil. Don’t make too many at first, only about 6 – 8. These are to control humidity. You will probably have to make some more later on depending on how tight the lid fits. For example, I have one box with 14 holes and another with 23. This also comes into play if you stack your cultures. I chose not to. Split your culture up between the two boxes. You can use the medium that they were shipped in also. It won’t hurt anything.
Feeding is easy. Use oatmeal, corn meal, instant potatoes, old bread and mashed potatoes. Any of the above dry foods can be sprinkled on top of the medium with a little water. I like to make a hole in the middle of the culture and bury the food. This keeps the medium from getting compacted. If you use leftover mashed potatoes or pasta, make sure it is free of any butter, margarine, or oil. Gravy is optional (not really). The food should be in pure form with no condiments. Feed the culture only after the prior food is consumed. This will take 4 to 7 days depending on the size and density of the culture. It takes about 3 months for the reproduction cycle to get into full swing. I know it will be hard but leave them alone except for feeding. Check on them from time to time and you will start to find little ones. What I am going to do and will have started by the time you read this is to pull the breeders from the two main cultures to start a third. I won’t mess with that one except to feed and add breeding stock. This will give me more of a culture base to work with.
When it comes time to feed my fish, I just dig some up, wash them off and toss them into the tank I want to feed. For the smaller fish I’ll take a worm by one end hold it over the tank and cut it up with a pair of scissors. These are my scissors. A word of warning: don’t use the scissors that are lying in the kitchen drawer. There IS HELL TO PAY if you are caught using them to cut up worms. This is from first hand experience. Go buy your own. It’s much safer. Here’s one last little bit of advice. I’ve had some small insects inhabit the surface of several different types of soil based worm cultures. I think these are mites. I know this sounds bad but these little guys keep the surface of the medium clean and free from mold and fungus. This is a guess, but on a culture of white worms that didn’t have these insects, mold, fungus and other crud got so out of control I had to throw it out. These mites are just there for the free meal. Keep the culture fed and they will keep it clean. They have never been a problem for me. I hope some of you will give this a try. I keep cultures under my book-stand in my fish room out of sight. Now I have plenty of food for practically nothing. Give earthworms a try, if it doesn’t work just throw them in the garden. It’ll make up for the scissors incident. Have fun growing your live foods.