For a lot of people that get into the aquarium hobby for the first time, it may not take long before the thought occurs to you, “Can I breed fish at home?” This question popped into my head just after about 2 months of owning an African Cichlid tank. I originally started with a 20 gallon high tank and 5 assorted Malawi Mbuna African Cichlids. Before long, I upgraded to a 29 gallon tank and added more fish. The whole time I was keeping fish, I still thought about trying to breed some of them.
How Do Fish Breed?
Fish breed in multiple ways: some lay eggs, some are live bearers, and some are mouth brooders. The African Cichlids I kept were Malawi Mbuna, and they are mouth brooders. What does mouth brooding mean? This means the female incubates the eggs in her mouth before they hatch. It is really interesting to see how the male and female breed for this type. They swim around each other in circles, then the female will drop an egg on the substrate. The male then goes over top of it and fertilizes it. Then, the female scoops it up in her mouth. They do this for about 15-20 eggs, in my experience. When they are done, the female incubates the eggs in her mouth until they hatch. When the eggs hatch, she may not release the fry for quite some time. Sometimes, she may hold them for 2-4 weeks!
My Fish Breeding Experience
I had only been working for PetSolutions for a few months at this time, but I got into the aquarium hobby quickly. I decided to set up the 20 gallon tank as a breeding tank, or more of an incubating tank. I decided to try Yellow Labidochromis (also known as Yellow Labs) first. It can be hard to just buy a male and a female, as it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between a male and female Yellow Lab. You can find suggestions on the internet, but no one has a clear, concreate way to determine sex. Usually, you would want to do a species-specific tank to increase your odds of breeding. I just happened to buy only 2 of these fish and wanted to see if I got lucky. It is recommended to keep about 3 females to 1 male, but I have never had any problems with my fish. I kept both the Yellow Labs in my 29 gallon tank with other assorted Mbuna. For months, I saw nothing, no signs of them interacting with each other.
One day, I got home from work, grabbed my can of Tetra Cichlid Flakes, and saw my one Yellow Lab with a HUGE bulge in her “chin.” I had no idea what that was, and when I went to feed, that fish did not eat. I started to get worried, so I scoured the internet to find out what that was. Sure enough, I found out that she was holding eggs in her mouth! I got super excited. How lucky was I to only buy 2 of the same fish and end up with a male and a female? Well, the experienced fish keepers at PetSolutions told me it might not have been the other Yellow Lab she mated with. It turns out African Cichlids are not really specific with who they breed with when held in captivity. It is very common for them to intermingle and crossbreed.
I decided to net the female out and hold her in my 20 gallon incubation tank. It was full of small, 1 inch diameter PVC pipe elbows and T-sections to give her a place to hide, and for the little ones to use to hide once she released them. She held the eggs for a while, and then the eggs hatched. She held the fry in her mouth for almost a whole month. She would open her mouth a little and show me the babies from time to time squirming around in her mouth. They were tiny, and you could see tiny black fish eyes. I kept wondering when she might release them. One Saturday, she decided to, and I had 17 baby Yellow Labs to raise under my own care. Again, I was super excited. And, I was even more excited that the fry were Yellow Labs, not cross breeds. This meant I had a Male and Female pair. I still have them both 3 years later.
When you get to this stage, it is best to keep the female with the fry and feed her back up to strength. She will not harm the fry until they are big enough to be a threat for food. I kept my female Yellow Lab in the 20 gallon incubation tank for about 5 days, until I moved her back to the 29 gallon tank with my other fish. Luckily, her reception back into the 29 gallon tank was welcome, and she was unharmed.
I started off feeding the fry in the 20 gallon tank the Hikari First Bites baby fry food for a while. These are super small pellets, almost like a powder, so you have to be careful how much you feed, Remember, the fry are tiny, which means their stomachs are even tinier. The last thing you want is an ammonia spike and to wipe them all out! You do want to feed the fry a few times a day, as well as do a water change at least 1 time a day. I ended up feeding about 3 times a day and did 2 water changes a day. This can help them grow faster. As with most fish, the more often you change the water, the faster they grow.
When the fry got bigger, I stated to feed crushed up flake food, and I still kept up my daily water changing routine. It can be a lot of work, a lot of food, and a lot of water conditioner.
Later on, I noticed both my Albino Socolofi and a Powder Blue Socolofi were holding eggs . The problem was, I did not have a male of either of those species. That meant they bred with some other fish, and I had no idea which. The Socolofi were the only Psuedotrophus that I had, so that meant they cross bred with one of my Zebra Cichlids. So, I decided I wanted to see what hybrids were made and put them in separate incubating tanks. I went through the same process as with the Yellow Lab, andI created some unique hybrids!
Now, breeding Hybrids can be a touchy subject for some folks. Some people will say it pollutes the gene pool. Others will say that it never happens in nature. I never planned on bringing fish from the United States over to Lake Malawi in Africa to release them into the wild. I accidentally bred hybrids with great results, and then sold them to aquarium keepers only. I never purposely cross bred the fish, they just intermingled on their own. This will happen to almost all African Cichlid keepers. It is only possible to avoid if you keep a single species tank. It is amazing what types of hybrids one can create.
Overall, breeding African Cichlids was quite easy for me. It was also fun. I enjoyed breeding pure breeds, like my Yellow Labidochromis, but also enjoyed when my fish intermingled and I had no idea what I was going to get.