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___An important element of the captive husbandry of a given species is responsible breeding. By promoting healthy stock, creating and refining fin and color varieties, and perpetuating captive bred lines, betta breeders keep the hobby alive. There is no question that captive breeding is essential to fishkeeping - however, irresponsible breeding can cause immense detriment to captive stocks and should be avoided at all costs. This guide serves to offer reflection on what constitutes responsible breeding, and hopefully generate serious consideration on the part of potential breeders before jumping in to such an intensive project.
___ Breeding bettas is not as simple as tossing two fish together and waiting for fry. The disposition of bettas makes them uniquely challenging to breed. Furthermore, being a highly variable species, a working knowledge of betta phenotypes and genotypes is essential if you wish to yield the desired results. Finally, genetic defects are common in this species - meaning that parent fish must be carefully selected (this may also entail some difficult decisions about offspring). However, before you can even consider breeding goals, you need to consider the basic facts about breeding bettas to determine if it is right for you.
- The average spawn results in hundreds of fertilized eggs. It is not uncommon for at least one hundred or more eggs to develop into fry, which you will need to feed, rear, house individually, and find homes for. This is expensive, time consuming, and difficult.
- Young fry normally will only eat live foods. This means culturing live foods in your home in most cases, which may mean an offensive odor or handling small invertebrates. This is not for the squeamish.
- Depending on the demand of the color and tail type you breed, you may not be able to home bettas until well into their maturity, and may not be able to home some of them at all. You must be prepared to care for large numbers of bettas in individual containers, which requires a great deal of time and space, and possibly an expensive barracks system depending on the scale you chose to breed on.
- It is common for fry to be deformed, or to have more fry than you can realistically handle. This may demand culling, the killing of undesirable fry. Ethically, this is difficult for some fish keepers, and even those who are fine with it must consider a humane method.
- Quality breeding pairs can be costly, and poor quality breeding pairs are more likely to throw unhealthy or undesirable fry. You need to manage your finances to strike a balance between quality and affordability.
- Often to place fry, you must ship. Shipping is inherently risky; even when done correctly, mailing issues, temperature changes, and other external factors can result in the deaths of fry. You must make sure you are comfortable with this before breeding.
- Breeding itself is risky. You need to have enough time to monitor the pair without interfering heavily, as pairs can and do sometimes harm or kill one another. You must use your judgment to decide what degree of fighting is safe and what is dangerous. Do you understand betta behavior well enough to do this?
- Money is seldom made breeding bettas as hobby; most beginner breeders barely break even if at all. This is a hobby, not a business; do you have the finances to invest in breeding?
Supplies You Should Have Handy Before Breeding
___If the above did not scare you away, you may be a good candidate for breeding. Your next consideration would be ensuring that you can secure all of the proper supplies for breeding. Everyone breeds bettas differently, but in general, there are a few supplies every breeder "must have." As you will see, the expenses for breeding will rack up quickly in supplies alone, so consider your finances before embarking on a breeding project. Big thanks to Pam S of our Staff for helping pull together this list!
- A spawning tank. The most common size is 5-10g, though some use storage bins or larger aquariums half-filled with water. Generally, you want something wide and shallow as opposed to narrow and deep.
- A submersible heater. Bettas are encouraged to breed by higher temperatures, so ideally you want the spawn tank to be at least 80 degrees (80-84 common).
- A low-current sponge filter and air pump. It is important to keep conditions clean for spawning and hatching, but high currents will disrupt the bubblenest, and traditional filters run the risk of sucking up the small, weak fry. You should also have a turkey baster or small siphon for "spot cleaning" uneaten food and feces.
- A hood, glass top, or saran wrap. The natural habitat of the betta is very humid during breeding season, and many breeders find that maintaining high humidity in the spawning tank helps retain bubblenest integrity. It is possible that young fry are sensitive to dry air as well.
- Live (preferred) or silk plants. In addition to mimicking the natural habitat and reducing stress, this permits the female betta to hide during spawning and the fry to hide after hatching. Betta mating can be very violent, especially with aggressive strains like "fighter" plakats. The male will often chase or nip the female (or vice versa!). Having dense planting reduces the chasing and also lets the pair escape one another to rest if need be.
- Indian Almond Leaf (best), Indian Almond Leaf Extract (good), or Blackwater Extract (ok). These tannin-rich materials help mimic the natural darkness, acidity, and hardness of a betta's natural habitat, and often promote breeding behaviors. Use one small Indian Almond Leaf per 5-10g until the water is a light tea-like color. Follow indications on bottle for IAL extract or Blackwater Extract, doubling if indicated as safe if you have hard or basic water.
- A Styrofoam cup or anything non-toxic and floating to help build a stable bubble nest. Some breeders go the all-natural route and use floating plants or leaves for spawning. Others use a Styrofoam cup cut in half and affixed to the aquarium wall. Bubble wrap and other lightweight floating plastics have also proven useful.
- A glass chimney or other clear container. This permits the male to view the female without harming her prior to breeding. Let the pair see one another for at least a day before releasing the female into the tank; this both preps the female for breeding and reduces the territorial/aggressive response.
- Conditioning Foods. Bettas being prepped for breeding should be fed a rich diet of whole frozen or live foods such as blood worms, brine shrimp, daphnia, etc. for at least two weeks. This is vitally important for females especially, as good nutrition will help her create healthy and numerous eggs.
- Fry foods/live food cultures. Young fry do not respond to dried foods in most instances; they are predatory in nature and are stimulated by movement to feed. Very young fry demand home cultured live foods such as infusoria, vinegar eels, baby brine shrimp, and microworms. Some will accept frozen rotifers, daphnia, egg yolk, and decapsulated brine shrimp eggs as well, but it is always safest to have live cultures available.
- Grow-Out Tank and/or Jars. As fry age, they need to be separated to prevent fighting, much like adults. Most breeders keep a few large grow-out tanks for females (which must be heated and filtered), and a series of (1/2g-1g) jars or beanie baby boxes for males. You will need an abundance of the jars/boxes if you do not cull to a specific number.
Setting Responsible Breeding Goals
___ Before you purchase your pair, you should decide why you are breeding. Your breeding goals will be strongly influential when it comes to choosing your breeding pair. Are you looking to show? To create a certain coloration? Are you breeding for finnage, body shape, or hopefully both? To see if you can develop a new type altogether from a mutation? Regardless of your plans, you should make sure your goals are responsible.
___ Responsible breeding is multi-faceted and relates to doing what is best for the animals and the hobby as a whole. The problem is that ethics are highly individualized, and what one person sees as acceptable another may not. In general, however, most keepers define responsible breeding of any species as the selective breeding of healthy individuals with known lineage with the specific goal of improving or perpetuating an existing (and hopefully salutary) trait. Most would also include only breeding animals who are in their prime, not over-breeding, and not breeding if there is a low likelihood of successfully placing the offspring. Other views may encompass limiting inbreeding, not culling healthy animals, etc. but this is a bit more vague.
___In general, responsible breeding goals logically fit the conventions of responsible breeding. If your breeding goal is creating beautiful double-tail bettas, you should avoid breeding specimens with excessive spine kinks even if their finnage is lovely. If your breeding goal is selecting for opaques, you should try to weed out specimens suffering from blindness. If you simply want to create nice quality pet bettas, you should still select for health and perhaps avoid overly common tail types that may be difficult to place. The logic is simple: if what you are doing is detrimental to your fish or to the health and quality of captive stocks, it probably isn't responsible breeding.
Sourcing and Selecting a Breeding Pair (Responsibly)
___It is common for betta owners to buy their first fish, fall in love with its personality or color, and want to breed it to make similar offspring. In fact, this occurs across the species board. While a nice sentiment, there is much more to responsibly selecting a breeding pair than pretty colors or a great personality (those can be included, of course!). Parental health, genetic health, quality of finnage and body, age, etc. should all be considered. The best way to get accurate information on all of these aspects is to source from a responsible breeder.
___So what defines a responsible breeder? Generally, a responsible breeder has already followed a breeding goal, and can give you some information on what color, finnage, etc. they were selecting for and where they sourced their base stock. They should demonstrate a knowledge and concern about bettas and their genetics. They should be proud to show off the actual fish you are purchasing to prove its quality. In betta keeping, experience is often an indication of a serious breeder, but don't write off beginners with great stock. Be leery of breeders who post pictures of "example" fish rather than the actual fish you are purchasing. Also steer clear of "breeders" trying to dump their spawn off on Craigslist and Petfinder - if their stock was anything to write home about, the only animals they should be desperate to get rid of is culls!
___Where, then, do you find responsible breeders? This can be tricky since most betta purchases occur online, and anyone with a webpage and some bettas can call themselves a "breeder" regardless of if they breed responsibly. Here are a few suggestions:
- Check the IBC. Breeders participating in IBC breeding programs breed by a code of ethics and select fish to be show quality, which generally means unhealthy fish are eliminated from the lines. That is not to say IBC fish are automatically the best quality fish on the market, but because its members are true betta enthusiasts, this is a good place to start.
- Try Aquabid - cautiously. Aquabid can be a great source for quality stock from overseas. It also is a common venue for scammers. Check a bidder's feedback carefully and make it a point to question the buyer if you'd like to know any specifics. You might fetch a great deal - if you play it smart.
- Check webpages - cautiously. It is hard to tell from glancing at a webpage if a betta breeder is responsible, but breeders who invest time in making a beautiful website with comprehensive husbandry advice, detailed information on their stock and breeding projects, and actual photos of their available bettas are a good bet. Still, don't be afraid to ask questions and search for reviews!
- Go to a show. Betta shows are hosted through the IBC and other fish clubs throughout the world. These events showcase the prize fish of breeders as well as offer auctions. You can mingle with breeders, see the fish first hand, and select quality stock without the guesswork of buying over the internet. Just make sure you're careful not to get too caught up in the bidding war!
- Go to a club meeting or join a club listing. Many chapters of the IBC do not hold shows regularly, but do involve a network of betta breeders. Many clubs have online groups you can join for updates from breeders selling or seeking stock. Some even hold monthly meetings where you can meet the breeders for yourself.
- Go to a betta forum. Many forums exist specifically for betta lovers and betta breeders. It is common for breeders to advertise in their signature or on a section of the forum set aside specifically for this purpose. Since forums offer direct communication, you can talk to the breeder via PM and get a feel for their breeding practices. Chances are a forum will also have reviews of breeders. That said…
- Check reviews! The first thing you should do when considering a breeder is try to find out what his or her customers thought of their purchase experience. One oddball complaint shouldn't deter you, especially if the breeder dealt with it appropriately, but multiple complaints about customer service, shipping expedience, price, quality, etc. should not be ignored.
Why Not My Petstore Fish?
___Many betta owners feel compelled to breed their pet store fish. Perhaps they find a beautiful specimen, or a well matched color pair. Or perhaps they just love the betta they've had on their desktop for the last year who still blows big, beautiful bubblenests. Although this is an understandable sentiment, it is generally advised that one does not breed pet store stock (across the species board, for that matter). It is not a matter of elitism; many pet store fish are admittedly lovely animals with more pep and personality than the best bred fish in the world. The issues with breeding pet store fish of any fin type are a bit more complex. For example:
- Where did these fish come from? Like most pet store animals, the majority of bettas (esp. those in chain stores) are sourced from large scale industrial breeders. Because they are simply shipping fish off to pet stores to be sold, there is no emphasis on careful selection. On the bright side, this produces a variety of colors and markings that delight us in pet store fish. On the dark side, fish with poor health, deformities, and genetic problems often slip through the breeding program into the general population. The lack of careful breeding means that though your fish may look lovely, he shares the same genetic background with the tail biter in the cup next to him, the fish missing a dorsal fin a few cups over, and the female with the kinked spine.
- How healthy are these fish? Another issue with pet store fish more related to the conditions in the store (but also to the breeding facility) is that the bettas have often been exposed to stressful, unsanitary conditions that leave them open for parasitic infestations and disease. Most fish have to go through the stress of shipping at some point, but what about factors unique to the pet store environment? A fish from a responsible breeder was likely kept in warm, clean conditions. In a pet store, most bettas are out on the room temperature sales floor in cups, well below the appropriate temperature and often not kept nearly clean enough. Pet store bettas are exposed to illnesses and parasites from the general stock and one another due to poor hygienic practices during when cleaning from cup to cup, tank to tank. And what about over-medication? Some stores have their fish constantly sitting in medicated solutions in an attempt to keep them healthy, which wears on their internal organs. This paired with poor diet and constant stress often makes for fish who are unhealthy, either immediately or in the long run.
- How old are these fish? The older a betta is, the more likely he is to throw deformed fry. Ideally, bettas over one year of age should not be bred, and younger is better. Most pet store males are already 6-12 months old (older fish have more impressive finnage and thus sell better) at the time of purchase. If you've had the male you've decided you want to breed for a few months already, chances are he is already too old to breed without a heightened risk of fry deformity.
- How desirable are these fish? It would seem from looking at hundreds of bettas stacked in cups at pet stores that bettas - especially veil tails and crown tails - are in high demand. However, you must consider that these fish are selling for a couple of bucks, without shipping, and many STILL go unsold for months or die in the store long before being sold. If someone can run to the store and grab a cheap fish of the exact same color, finnage, and quality you bred when you mated your pet store pair, without the hassle and expense of shipping; why would they buy from you? Even if you try to place locally, can find enough homes for hundreds of fry? Think you can sell to a pet store? Most stores (esp. chain stores) source bettas cheaply in large numbers and would not be interested in paying even a dollar apiece for fish from a local breeder - and even if they would, don’t you want to know what kind of homes your bettas go to? Bettas are, after all, popular in all the wrong ways - much like goldfish, a large number end up in unsuitable homes.
___Commonly, the reason people breed pet store fish is to have a first time spawn for "practice" before buying an expensive breeding pair. To be reasonable, quality breeding pairs do not have to be inordinately expensive, and you could always "practice" your first spawn from a quality pair to learn from it; bettas can always be bred again if something goes wrong. However, if you are truly committed to experiencing your first time breeding with a pet store pair, here is a word of advice: do not let the entire spawn hatch or develop. Try to keep the numbers down to 20 or fewer by removing the female before she has released all of her eggs, removing a section of the bubblenest and disposing of the eggs, or letting the male consume much of the newborn fry. Chances are not all of the fish will survive to maturity even in a small spawn, so this will leave you with a more reasonable number to try to place.
A Note on Culling
___Finally, we must address something you need to be prepared for that is a grim reality of responsible breeding. At some point, you are probably going to have to cull (kill) some of your fry. The degree to which you cull is totally up to you - some high-end Thai breeders cull all but a couple of top quality fish from each spawn regardless of if the others were perfectly viable. Other breeders adopt out deformed fish and only cull those who are so disabled that they would have no quality of life. Some cull to control spawn numbers or eliminate undesired colors, others cull minimally and simply sell excess or undesired fish at a much lower price. What you chose is up to you, but the reality of culling is essentially inescapable. Make sure you can reconcile with this before you embark on a breeding project and be prepared. Humane methods to cull would include any of the accepted euthanasia methods listed in our Euthanasia Techniques topic, or you could use the more popular and less wasteful option of feeding deformed fry to predatory fish. Keep your eyes peeled for a future sticky topic on culling for more information.
Final Thoughts and Conclusion
___As much as any other animal, betta breeding requires a great deal of forethought, preparation, and ethical consideration. A prospective breeder must evaluate not only the quality of his stock, but his own preparedness for breeding, financially, physically, and psychologically. Always be sure you've thought things through, gathered your supplies, sourced your fish responsibly, and set realistic and ethical goals before embarking on a breeding project. If you take these steps, your first experience breeding bettas should be a positive and enjoyable one rather than a stressful and unsuccessful one. Remember, betta breeding is not just a hobby - it is your contribution to our hobby as a whole. Make it count!
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