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Conditioning Breeders

By Mike Hellweg

Fish will do what comes naturally and spawn in our aquaria IF we give them what they need.  With many species that means approximating the spawning season, giving the adults what barb and tetra guru Randy Carey calls a “trigger” to initiate spawning.  Following the metaphor, all we as aquarists need to do is figure out how to turn off the safety and pull the trigger.

With many fish like cichlids and livebearers, all we have to do is buy a group of juveniles and grow them out.  Eventually, they will reach sexual maturity and pair off, even in a community tank.   Often they will even successfully raise a brood of fry in that same community tank.  But many other fish aren’t so easy.  Many of them require a little to a lot of extra work on the part of the hobbyist.

Blackworms are an excellent live food to use to help induce spawning in somewhat difficult fish.

Blackworms are an excellent live food to use to help induce spawning in somewhat difficult fish.

With these fish it is best to separate out the males from the females.  When you have limited tank space, the best way to do this is to move the female(s) to what will become the spawning tank, and leave the male(s) in the community tank.

At first the spawning tank can have water similar to the main tank.  As the conditioning period goes forward, begin changing the water out with water more appropriate for the particular species (harder, softer, more basic or acidic, more or less salty, etc.).  Do several water changes over the course of a week to 10 days.

Feed the adults heavily with meaty foods.  Flake or pellet food just isn’t enough.  There are various enzymes, amino acids, and other things in living foods that are destroyed by processing.  This is why every experienced breeder will tell you that you need to use live foods for conditioning.  Many of us use frozen and freeze-dried foods as well, but live foods really provide that extra boost that makes the difference between success and failure.

European drift worms are another type of worm that can be cultured and fed to fish that are being conditioned to breed.

European drift worms are another type of worm that can be cultured and fed to fish that are being conditioned to breed.

Every time I give a talk on breeding fish, I quote my friend and breeding guru Charley Grimes of Indianapolis.  I think he put it most succinctly:  “the best way to put eggs in her belly is to put worms in her tummy.”

Worms are an excellent live food.  We are fortunate in that we have many different types of worms to use that can be sized to the mouth of the fish, or larger worms can be cut up for feeding smaller fish.  Some of the ones currently in use by breeders include Grindal worms, white worms, tubifex worms, Dero worms, black worms, red wigglers, European drift worms, and night crawlers.  All can be found in a local pet shop or bait store, or they can usually order them for you.  If not, members of a local aquarium or herp club likely can supply starter cultures and information on how to culture them.  Or you can go to various sites on the web and order them from reputable growers. Of course, you can also read my book Culturing Live Foods (T.F.H. Publications, 2008) for tips on starting many different types of live food cultures.

Whiteworms do best at cooler temperatures, which is why these are stored in a fridge.

Whiteworms do best at cooler temperatures, which is why these are stored in a fridge.

Live food cultures need to be fed. Here whiteworms are eating a slice of bread.

Live food cultures need to be fed. Here whiteworms are eating a slice of bread.

Most breeders culture their own live foods.  There is a lot of excellent information out there about culturing live foods, including several excellent books.  Culturing your own foods gives you a chance to control every aspect of your fish’s diet.  More on this later…

Posted February 5th, 2010.

3 comments

Using Live Plants: One of my Keys to Success

By Mike Hellweg

One of the things you may notice that is different between my approach and Ted’s is that I use live plants in every tank. I know Ted’s reasoning is sound—many aquatic habitats do not have live plants in them, especially the blackwater habitats that are home to many of the fish that both he and I enjoy. Sometimes the fish we keep never see a live plant in their entire life in the wild. The only plant matter in many of these habitats is the terrestrial plant material that falls into the water and provides structure for the fish to call home.

Plants can provide a more naturalistic environment for fish and can serve as both hiding places and spawning sites.

Plants can provide a more naturalistic environment for fish and can serve as both hiding places and spawning sites.

So why use live plants? I’ve been using them since my first goldfish bowl in 1966. With but a few exceptions, I have included live plants, even if it were only Java moss Taxiphyllum sp. or a sprig of anacharis Egeria densa in every setup since that first bowl when I was a child and the clerk at the drug store told my Mom and I that fish had to have live plants to survive. Over the years, I’ve found that when I include live plants in tanks, I have more spontaneous or serendipitous spawns, and have more luck raising fry than I do on the few occasions when I don’t use live plants. I also learned from some of my early mentors in the breeding part of the hobby that they also used live plants when trying to breed just about any new fish. It works! I even toss Java moss into quart jars with my male bettas when I’m working on growing fancy bettas.

Our tanks are not natural bodies of water; they are artificial glass boxes full of water. Plants help even fish from blackwater habitats to feel more at home than those tanks without them. The fish color up quickly and set about exploring the planted tank, whereas in a plain tank they might hide for several days before feeling secure enough to go exploring. I contend that adding plants gives tanks a smell that is more natural to fish, helping them to settle in quickly. Go ahead, give a handful of aquatic plants a sniff! If they’re healthy, they’ll have an earthy smell to them, just like freshly turned garden soil. Some have even a more pleasant smell to them. A healthy tank usually has this smell, too. If it smells even a bit off, then the tank has something wrong with it. More on that another time…

In addition, plants carry all kinds of beneficial bacteria and other beneficial critters on their surfaces. You can set up a new tank with a raw filter and plant the tank well, and there will be no cycling required. The plants will begin taking up nutrients from the water very soon after being added. And the bacteria on them will quickly populate the tank. So you can basically set up a tank, add plants, and it is good to go. In fact, when I set up small spawning tanks and add plants, the fish experience no discomfort at all when I add them soon after—they get right down to spawning!

Some other benefits of live plants that I‘ve found:

1. They provide natural filtration of the water, removing ammonia and other waste products from the water column. Even if it is only a negligible amount, it is still a benefit over unplanted tanks.

2. They add oxygen to the water. Again, even if only a small amount, it is still a benefit over unplanted tanks. In conjunction with this, they also take in carbon dioxide during the day, again a benefit over non-planted tanks.

3. They provide a source of food for the fish to graze upon, either directly or indirectly. They serve directly for fish that consume them as food, and indirectly by serving as a surface area for a vast colony of microflora and microfauna which serve as foods for fry and small fish to graze upon between feedings.

4. They provide a place for dominated fish to hide, and provide a secure feeling even for dominant fish. The fish know there is a safe place where they can hide if they need to, so they spend more time out in the open. Female fish have a place to hide after spawning so they are out of the male’s line of sight, giving them safety until the breeder can remove the fish.

5. They provide an ever changing environment for the fish. Fish are intelligent, and are evolved to adapt to a constantly changing environment. Plants move, grow and change on a daily basis, providing the fish with something akin to a natural environment. A path that is open one day might be blocked the next, causing the fish to have to rethink and work out a new routine. Animal behaviorists call this behavioral enrichment and consider it an important part of any animal husbandry program.

6. They provide territorial markers so that fish can define breeding territories without claiming the entire tank, allowing groups of fish to live in peace where otherwise they would be fighting constantly.

7. They provide a spawning site for many species. Many egg scatterers lay their eggs among the myriad leaves and stems of stem plants or fine-leafed mosses. Many cave spawners will spawn in the area under the rhizome and between the roots of Anubias sp. or Java Fern Microsorum sp. Many bubblenest builders will build their nests under the leaves of floating plants like water sprite Ceratopteris sp. or under the leaves of submerged plants like Anubias sp. Fish like Pyrrhulina and Copenia, as well as festivums, angels and discus, lay their eggs on the surface of plant leaves. And some fish species, like the Trigonostigma species and some of the Nannostomus actually lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves.

8. Some species incorporate plant material into their nest, weaving a nest out of aquatic plants (sticklebacks), or placing plant leaves or stems into their bubble nests to give them strength and security (Colisa sp. for example).

9. Some plant species are excellent filters removing carbonates and even heavy metals from the water—so much so that they are used in wastewater treatment in commercial sewage treatment plants. If you have a trace of a certain metal in the water, a fish may not spawn, but certain plants may remove that metal and make the water safer for your fish, maybe even being the edge you need to get them to spawn.

10. Last, but by no means least, is the fact that I like live plants and I like to see them in my tanks, so it provides me with nearly as much enjoyment as do the fish. I’m just as challenged by figuring out what I need to do to get a particular plant to propagate as I am with trying to figure out the triggers to get a particular fish species to spawn.

Posted January 8th, 2010.

4 comments

Preparing the Fishroom

By Mike Hellweg

When Ted first approached me with the idea for this contest, I jumped at the chance to help promote my favorite part of the hobby, breeding fish.  I knew I would have to step up my game a bit (Ted is a fierce competitor!), but that also would require some modifications to my fishroom.

First, I needed to have a place for all of the fry to grow out.  After all, if I was going to participate in this contest, I would also want to support my own club (the Missouri Aquarium Society, Inc. [MASI]) in our Breeders Award Program (BAP).  But that would mean holding the fry for 60 days.  I know, our contest rules include growing them out to 30 days, which is generally the safe point from which you know the fry will survive, but my club requires them to be at least 60 days old.  That means I have to tie up tanks for twice as long as Ted.  But it also means my fry will be closer to saleable size when I turn them in, so I can get them to local shops at this time, too.

I know some readers will want to know more about my fishroom.  It is approximately 12 feet by 14 feet.  In the walls and ceiling I installed R-30 insulation to cut down on heating and cooling costs.  It is heated and cooled with our home’s central air and heating.  This means I don’t have to worry too much about temperature control in individual tanks.  For electrical supply in the room, I added three extra ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI)  protected circuits just for the fishroom.  One is on a timer and runs the lights, another is on all the time and is for any extra filters/heaters that I might need, and the third is extra, in case I want to run something extra at some point.  All of the tanks are filtered with air driven sponge filters powered by a linear piston air pump, and all of them contain live plants.

All of the tanks are drilled with overflows that go to a floor drain, so water changes are easy;  I just run a hose from my 220 gallon water holding system to each tank for a few minutes and let the old water flow into the drain.  This system consists of four 55 gallon drums plumbed together.  The water is treated, heated, aerated and circulated between the drums until needed.  If a tank needs a bit more cleaning, I can drain individual tanks into a line that runs around the room and goes to the floor drain.  I can also add hang on filters if needed, but I only use these when I need to clean a tank.  Lighting is supplied by power compact florescent lights and by low power consumption commercial shoplights.  To control humidity and prevent mold growth, I also added an exhaust fan that turns on automatically when the room humidity gets above 50%.  This just dumps the humid air to the outside, and pulls in fresh, conditioned air from the rest of the house.

In my fishroom, I have a dozen 30-gallon breeders.  Those are excellent grow out tanks, each will hold dozens or even hundreds of fry, depending on the species.  I can even grow out fry of several species in one tank, if they are compatible in size and temperament.  But even so, that means I can only grow out a dozen or so species at a time.  I need more room.  Fortunately, I have eight more 30-gallon “box” tanks from a local wholesaler that went out of business a few years ago that have just been sitting there, waiting for me to come up with something to do with them.  They are called “box” tanks because they are shaped like a fish box – just a bit larger – two foot square and just under a foot deep.  They are used in the trade to hold a box of fish each.  With their large surface area and shallow depth, they can be stacked four high in the fishroom.  This rack of tanks will only take up 8 square feet of floor space while giving me 32 square feet of tank floor space!  This is perfect for my fishroom, where space is at a premium.  So I begin this month setting up this rack up and starting to get these tanks ready to go.

Mikes newest addition to his fishroom, a rack for more 30-gallon breeder tanks.

Mike's newest addition to his fishroom, a rack for more 30-gallon breeder tanks.

I also started conditioning fish for spawning.  That means tanks for males and tanks for females in many species.  I have a rack that holds 5 x 10 gallon tanks and 8 x 20 gallon “high” tanks that I designed for this purpose.  It will also give me extra room to isolate new fish (every fish, invert, and new plant coming into my fishroom gets at least one month’s quarantine) and rotate extra pairs in case I have to separate fish from the main pairs in the breeding tanks.

With other fish, conditioning just means setting up a tank with proper conditions and feeding them well, while letting nature take its course.  I have a wall of tanks set up just for this – a 30 long, 6 x 29 gallon tanks, 6 x 20 longs, 7 x 10 gallon tanks and 3 x 5 gallon cubes.  These will be used for most of my breeding attempts.

I have a set of extra grow out tanks in case things get out of hand and I get lucky with spawnings.  This consists of 4 x ½ ten gallon tanks (a specially made tank), 5 x 10 gallon tanks, 2 x 20 flats (made from two ten gallon tanks glued together – one with the back out and the other with the front out), and two fifty gallon flats (essentially a 75 gallon tank cut down to a foot deep).  In addition, outside of the fishroom I have setups for larger fish.  I have 7 forty breeders, a 58 breeder, and two 75’s.

A mated pair of Honduran Red Points Amititlania siquia in Mikes fishroom.

A mated pair of Honduran Red Points Amititlania siquia in Mike's fishroom.

Finally, the last group of tanks will be my “secret weapon” that I plan to roll out in month two or month three.  More on that later – I don’t want to give too much away to Ted!

Posted December 30th, 2009.

5 comments

Hobbyist Profile: Mike Hellweg

Craig Sernotti

photographs by Mike Hellweg except as noted

Anyone who reads this magazine somewhat regularly will no doubt recognize the name Mike Hellweg. Mike’s writings appear in Tropical Fish Hobbyist and many other publications. He is a lifelong aquarium hobbyist, an expert breeder, and an aquatic horticulturist who shares his knowledge at clubs and conventions. He has one book out now, and a second will be released later this year. It all began with a single goldfish.

Betta channoides in Mike Hellweg's fishroom; unlike the ubiquitous hobby betta B. splendens, B. channoides is a mouthbrooder.

Continue Reading…

Posted November 18th, 2009.

3 comments

Mike vs. Ted: A Breeder’s Challenge (Extended)

This year Ted Judy, in a moment of utter foolishness, challenged Mike Hellweg to a one-on-one fish breeding contest. The rules are simple: spawn fish, raise the fry to an age when they can be safely given to another hobbyist, and repeat. The species that are spawned will be assigned point values based on the system used by the Missouri Aquarium Society, Inc.’s (MASI) Breeders Award Program (BAP), which ranks fish based upon their breeding difficulty.

The contest is to span one year, beginning with the January 2010 issue of TFH and ending with the December 2010 issue. Ted and Mike will submit a spawning report to TFH each month, as well as talk about the strategies, successes, and failures they experience during the competition. Our intrepid breeders will also update a blog at www.tfhmagazine.com/blogs so readers can get more frequent updates on what is going on in Mike’s and Ted’s fishrooms. TFH recently sat down with these master breeders to get some information about the contest, and learn a little more about the contestants:

Continue Reading…

Posted November 18th, 2009.

4 comments

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