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Monday, March 01, 2010

Live Food Culturing

There have been many questions directed to this blog on rearing ants (and also termites). So I am adding two additional posts one on live food cultures and another on collection and rearing of ants (and also termites). In most places live food such as mealworms, superworms, crickets, etc. can be easily bought from Aquatic supply shops fairly cheaply so it might make more sense to buy then culture your own. But if you prefer to have your own supply without relying on suppliers for whatever reasons or some other reasons then this post may provide you with both the conceptual basis and methodology to culturing your own life feed food, simply and effectively.

But I need to dig through my old photos (my trusty cheap auto focus camera is already almost out of commission) to search out photos I have previously shot to begin constructing this two posts. Whenever I am able (time wise) I will fill in the information details. So I will just start off posting any photos that might be helpful.

There are two main points or purpose to culturing your own live food to feed your pets. The first of course is to provide alternatives to bought food both processed and live, either as a supplement or as the entire food source. The second is to have a sufficient supply of live (or fresh killed) food always available in sufficient quantity to satisfy your pets consumption needs.

The considerations then are that the selected species must be simple and easy (i.e. not labor intensive or parameters sensitive, meaning high maintenance) to culture; moderate to high yield; short (relatively) life cycles; do not need lots of space; easy to harvest; and do not generate a load or lots of trash. Of course there are always some trade-off between easy to culture, low maintenance, low resource requirement and fast/high yield.

Superworm and mealworm (beetles larvae)
Relatively easy to culture superworms however takes quite a while to grow from eggs to adult producing eggs. Mealworms at half the size has a much shorter live cycle and would be preferred over superworms for feeding ants (and other small animals including spiders, lizards and frogs).

While mealworm larvae readily takes seeds and nuts (such as peanuts, walnut, etc), superworm larvae do no appear to fancy these, though they might still feed on them. I use these as supplements for mealworms (as they quickly finish them as any left overs will breed dustmites and even pest ants such as M pharaonis and floricola. Yes both these species are pests finding their way into containers and packages of food and even beverages and water).

It needed to be noted that Superworm beetles' males are aggressive towards other males and will attack each other biting off each other's  antennae and legs.

Additional to cellulose material make sure to include a water source for the larvae and adults so they will not be cannibalizing their mates (i.e. the eggs, molting larvae and pupae) for moisture.

The adult (imago) and the larvae feeding on wheat bran. Wheat bran has a higher fiber content than oat unless you want to use expensive oat bran. Further wheat bran do not grow dustmites unlike oats and oat bran.

Aside from wheat bran I also use wood (dead and dried branches, twigs, grass and leaves) collected from the "wild". The reason for using the dried dead stuff is because fungus will grow on damp cellulose. Above (photo) A larva boring into wood.

Adult superworm (more) and mealworms (less) beetles are omnivores and feeding them with meat (cooked or raw) will increase egg production. But if you do supplement with meat, be sure to remove any leftovers after an hour or so to avoid dustmites and flies in your culture.


Superworms (larvae). 


Egg laying. Boring into wood the female beetle lay her clutch of eggs.

A clutch of eggs (around 15 eggs).
Each Superworm egg is around 2 mm long.

 Recently hatched Superworm larva. The surprising thing is Superworms when newly hatch is actually short in length than mealworm newly hatched larvae by around 1 millmeter.
Recently hatched Superworm larva close up.

Mealworms (beetle larvae)

Mealworms are similar to Superworms but just smaller in (approx. half the) size and takes a relatively shorter time to develop from eggs to imago. The adults (imago) also has a relatively much shorter lifespan 

Mealworm beetles mating. Mealworm beetles male are not aggressive against one another unlike those of Superworm beetles.

 Size of mealworm larva when first hatched.

Various larvae instar of mealworms

Springtails (or Collembola) are detritus feeders feeding on any organic material. They are easy to culture but tends to be very messy leaving their liquid droppings everywhere they move. Because they are prolific breeders their droppings will covered all surfaces they moved over very quickly (in around a week).

A few genera of small ants (of mostly small trapjaw ants) hunt Springtails. Most other ants either ignore them or are unable to catch them. They are also suitable for small "baby" spiders and Praying Mantis nymphs (aka larvae). You can also immobilized them to feed ants of average size (around 7 mm and smaller, as most large ants ignore them) and smaller which might normally be unable to catch them.

A near maintenance free method of cultivating springtails is in a pot of soil, together with earthworms, small size snails species and other small detritus eating animals such as isopods, etc. Mix the soil with dead (wet or dry) grass, leaves, twigs and wood at the start and add in more occasionally (depending on the pot and culture size) anything for a month to several months. Be sure to have a tray at the bottom of the pot that is filled with water to prevent "escape". Also with a tray of water at the base you may not need to water the pot as long as you maintain the water in the tray. You can also supplement with other food but keep the quantity small to avoid attracting flies. I use banana skin and egg shell (the waste from cooking with eggs or eggs from breakfast).

A collected sample containing two Springtail species.

A larger species that needs less humidity

A smaller species (very prolific) that needs a more humid growing environment. The photo here shows them feeding on the residue on the egg shell (minus the main egg white and yolk which I regularly cook with my food). Chicken and fish bones (leftover trash from food) may also be used but they tend to attract flies.

A piece of wood (or of any other material) placed over the soil can be used to harvest the Springtails.

Springtails feeding on a decomposing banana skin place in potted soil.

Springtails feeding on banana skin.

Of course there are many ways to culture live food and here is a more sanitized method using a plastic or glass container. Food choices are also quite open as long as they feed. Here above is my typical food for collembola (springtails): eggs shell with residue and banana skins. 

Under a folded tissue you can see them hiding. 

 A third method I use that make for easy harvesting and gives a good yield with very little maintenance but only suitable for those species that needs less humidity.

Wood Roaches, Woodlice (isopods), etc.
Roaches similar with mealworms and superworms are another easy to culture. I prefer wood (eating) roaches to others because they are very much cleaner and very low maintenance. However they have a considerable lower yield rate (unless you are growing large numbers) and longer time from eggs to adult (depending on the species size).

If you culture these roaches in door, you will need to house them in ventilated containers that has a cover to prevent them escaping. The humidity content requirement is similar to subterranean ants and termites.

 This large roach around the size of the Asian/American cockroach has a very hard exoskeleton like beetles and is probably too hard for most ants to bite into but their newly hatch nymphs (aka larvae) are not. These are around the size of mealworm's beetles.

This species is slightly smaller than the one posted above.

This species are surface foraging and do not burrow into the soil or dead tree (trunk or branches) but hide under leave litter or gaps in the bark of trees.

This is the imago of a very commonly found (in this location) burrowing black roach. The adult is about 2/3 the size of the Asian (house) cockroach.

Silverfish (Lepisma)
Silverfish is another detritus feeder with the house dwelling species feeding mostly on paper and paper products. Silverfish can be culture together with wood eating roaches (also springtails) unless you want to culture them (i.e. the house silverfish species) in dried low humidity media.

 Wild silverfish needs a more humid rearing container than the house silverfish.

The house silverfish need near zero moisture getting their moisture from the cellulose matter they feed on quite similar in this sense to drywood termites.

Fruitflies (including wingless and flightless)

A long time ago I cultured wingless (smaller species) and flightless (larger species) fruitflies. But that was way before I bought a camera. So there aren't any photos but I included them as they too are easy to culture though higher maintenance as they feed on fruits and yeasts and these goes bad relatively quickly unlike wood and cellulose material which don't. That is the reason why I prefer earthworms, small snails, woodlice (isopods), silverfish and wood roaches over others, as live food cultures.

All that is needed is a covered container large enough to house a piece of bread dampened with baker yeast dissolved in water. Of course you can used fruits (not a good idea as they decomposed too fast) or anti fungi treated culture media which will prevent fungi growth and slow down the decomposition of the media.

Insert fruit flies and they will lay eggs on the "yeasted" bread. Any uneaten bread needed to be thrown away after four or five days (at most, depending on location temperature) as they will begin to stink. Insert new piece of "yeasted" bread, and repeat.

Make sure to place the bread on a plate or petri dish and keep the rest of the container dry. If desire place a few crumpled tissue paper or paper napkin (or even newspaper or cardboard) for the larvae to pupate on to make for easy collection.

Fruit flies and their larvae are not exclusive feeder on fruits or yeast but will take most other decomposing food.

Wingless small species of fruit flies. By dispensing with wings these flies grows fat (and thus won't be able to fly anyway) and are more productive reproduction wise. 

Snails, Earthworms, etc (either aquatic or land)
Small snails are another easy near no maintenance live food to culture. Additionally they can be cultured together with springtails, isopods and earthworms (I prefer small species around the sizes to tubifex worms), all of which are detritus (omnivorous) feeders.

All that is needed is a flower pot filled with soil, wood and other plant matter, A pot tray (at the based of the pot and filled with water to prevent the culture subjects from leaving the pot), but make sure the tray always has water which might need to be changed, the duration depending on whether you lived where mosquitoes are present.

As detritus and decomposing cellulose feeders both small snails, isopods and earthworms, and also springtails (feeding on the waste excreted by the snails), can all be reared in a pot of soil mixed with dead plant matter including wood and paper (tissue, cardboard, etc).

With snails, isopods and earthworms, it might be needful to kill or crush (for snails and isopods) or cut (for earthworms) them first before feeding them to ants. Note that not all ants will eat snails and isopods so for those ants species these won't do.

I prefer the smaller species of snails and earthworms as these are easier and less messy to kill (crush or cut up) than the larger. Also the smaller species are less of a wastage if you do not have a huge quantity of ants to feed each feeding cycle.

Small trumpet garden snails

Camponotus parius feeding on crushed trumpet snails

Other live food

Practically anything that is not too large and too high maintenance (from any perspective) can be cultured as live food feeds for ants (and also other pets such as spiders, scorpions, lizards, frogs, etc.). But caution might needed to be exercised with ants (and also other invertebrates with exoskeletons (such as spiders, scorpions, centipedes, etc.). This is especially if you are collecting your "seed" culture from the wild. Wild caught crickets and termites are notorious for harboring clinging opportunistic mites. In the wild such mites are rarely ever a serious problem to the host as they are naturally dispersed. But in a confined area as often the case with housing containers for ants, the prolific reproductive rates of these mites will soon seen you insect or arthropod pets completely covered with them.

Last Updated 2018 06 01
First Posted: 2018 01 24
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