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Whiteworms

Whiteworms
by Adrian R. Tappin
reprinted with permission
Orinigally published at: http://www.powerup.com.au/~tappin/



Whiteworms (Enchytraeus albidus Henle, 1837) are probably one of the most popular form of live food cultured by aquarists. They are highly nutritious and especially valuable for conditioning rainbowfishes before spawning, or for young fast growing fish. Fed two or three times a week; they'll give your fish a nutritional boost. The actions of your fish will change dramatically when they see the movement of live struggling worms in the aquarium. Some aquarists feel that fish fed exclusively on whiteworms become obese due to the fat content of the worms. However, the problem may lie more with overfeeding with the worms, rather that the fat content of the worms. Whiteworms generally contain less than 2.7% body fat in contrast microworms contain 4.8%.



The secret for successfully raising whiteworms is to understand their particular needs and supply them. Experience has shown that shallow wooden boxes work best. Typical worm boxes are 15 to 60 cm long, 15 to 30 cm wide and no more than 10 to 15 cm deep. The top must cover the box to block out light and keep out predators. Ants, beetles, and other creepy crawlies will feed either on the worms or the food. A secure lid and careful placement of the culture box will prevent such pests. Plastic containers with drainage holes punched in the bottom have been used with success. However, simple boxes made of pine and plywood are generally preferable to plastic, styrofoam, or other materials because the joints allow better drainage and aeration of the soil. A cover is recommended to keep the soil surface from drying out. Any flat material that can be pressed lightly onto the surface of the soil will serve as a cover. I use a thin piece of scrap glass cut smaller than the surface area of the soil. Leave a border of about 15-mm of soil exposed to the air. The collection of moisture at the cover attracts the worms, making it an ideal place to feed them. By feeding and attracting the worms to the surface, it'll be easier to collect them to feed to your fish.

Whiteworms will grow in any kind of soil if it doesn't pack down hard. Potting mix obtainable from most garden supply stores should be adequate. Choose a good quality mix as I've found some potting soils contain a lot of coarse material in them. Leaf mould and humus are excellent additives that will improve the soil significantly. Some of the best mixes are those that have been designed for growing seedlings. These are generally very fine and hold moisture well, but remain loose. Whichever soil you choose, ensure that it doesn't contain any chemical fertilisers, sterilisers, fungicides, pesticides and other man made chemicals or contaminants, as these additives will kill the worms. A soil pH of between 6.8 to 7.2 should be ideal.

Fill the box about two-third full with your chosen soil mix. Wet the soil until it's reasonably damp, allowing any excess water to drain. The next step is to get your starter culture. These are often available from aquarium stores, live foods suppliers or from a fellow hobbyist. Once you have your starter culture, empty the contents on top of the media. Sprinkle a small amount of food over the surface of the soil and spray with water. Place the soil cover on the surface, put the lid on and move the box to an area that'll stay between 15 - 21°C. For best results, keep the culture in a cool dark area. Experience has shown that at temperatures above 30°C or below 0°C, whiteworms will die. Their optimal breeding temperature is 18°C as the temperature begins to rise or fall below this mark; their production rate will decline. If necessary, a refrigerator with its thermostat turned up can be used. Allow the culture to stand undisturbed for several days to allow your white worms to propagate.

Whiteworms will eat just about anything organic. Hobbyists feed their worms vegetable based foods such as plant material, oatmeal, bread soaked in milk, wheat flour, cereal, mashed potato and dozens of other similar foods. They'll even eat flake and pelleted fish foods, dry dog and cat food, if they're pre-soaked beforehand. Feeding trials have shown that the best single food for worms is breadcrumbs. However, we are what we eat, so the nutritionists tell us. Well, worms are no different and I've found that Heinz ® High Protein baby cereal, blended with water, provides excellent results. The cereal also provides higher protein levels than breadcrumbs. This higher protein increases the nutritional value of the whiteworms, which is then passed onto your fish. Similar procedures are used in commercial fisheries with brine shrimp. Young brine shrimp are fed an enhanced diet, which is passed onto the fish when they eat the shrimp.

Whiteworms shouldn't be fed too heavily at first because surplus food tends to attract mites, fungal growth, and bacterial contamination. You'll have to regulate the amount of food offered during the first month until the culture stabilises. Replenish the food supply, as needed (ideally every three to four days). If the food supply is not entirely consumed within a week, you are adding too much food for the worm population.

Whiteworms are hermaphroditic. Each individual has both male and female reproductive organs. One worm mates with another individual and each fertilise the other. The worms exchange sperm cells during copulation and eggs are laid in transparent cocoons. Each cocoon produced by young adults contains 9-10 eggs, cocoons from mature adults produce 20-25 eggs. As the culture density increases, the reproductive rate levels off and old worms will only produce around 2-3 eggs per cocoon. The highest egg production reported was in the vicinity of 35 eggs per cocoon. Average per total population in culture is 10 eggs per cocoon. The eggs hatch in 12 days, and worms begin reproducing in 20 days. Each individual can produce as many as 1000 eggs over its life span.

If the culture is maintained properly, the worms will gather in mass on the surface of the soil. The worms will often congregate on the glass cover where they can be scraped off and fed to your fish. Don't harvest worms before the first month of growth. Let the culture grow and you'll be able to make new cultures and collect all the worms you need. You'll need to inspect the culture for food and moisture levels two or three times a week. If the food is gone, then increase the amount of food given. If food remains, then remove the excess and reduce the amount provided. You'll find that the moisture level will drop and that the surface of the soil will begin to dry out. If this condition is allowed to continue the worms will start to go deeper in the soil seeking moisture. When they do this, they're also moving away from the food you place on the surface of the soil. Spray with water to maintain a damp, but not soggy, look and feel. A plant sprayer or mister can be used for this purpose.

Whiteworm cultures are often infested with mites. These small spiders like creatures are harmless and will not do any damage other than eating the whiteworms' food. If you keep your culture in a refrigerator, then mites will not be a problem. After a period of six to nine months, the soil texture will begin to break down due to the activity of the worms, and the soil will become acidic. This inhibits the production of worms, leaving you with only adult worms.

To maintain your culture, the old soil should be removed and fresh soil placed in the box. The culture can be divided into several boxes at this time, as it's a good idea to have more than one culture in operation. You can transfer most of the worms by collecting from the old box and placing them in the new box. Another simple method to replace an old culture is to scoop away the top 2-3 cm of soil with most of the worms and gently mix it into fresh, moist soil in a new box.


Grindal Worms:
Grindal worms (Enchytraeus buchholzi Vejdovsky, 1879) are a smaller relative of the whiteworm, but usually only grow to about 1-cm and thus are an ideal size for most rainbowfishes including both adults and larger fry. Mrs. Morten Grindal, of Sweden, who was prominent in the development of culturing techniques for whiteworms, was apparently the first person to isolate this smaller species. Grindal worms can be cultured exactly as whiteworms but are a much more adaptable species and have a greater tolerance for warmer temperatures (20-24°C).

© Copyright 1996-2000, Adrian R. Tappin - All rights reserved.
Updated December, 2000.