Unwanted hitchhikers like the bristle worm and fireworm are an all too common problem for reefers. We’ll discuss how to get rid of bristle worms and fireworms but bristle worms are not necessarily bad as they help break down detritus. If you’re not experiencing any problems you may not want to remove them. That said, some find them unsightly, which I can totally understand. Some worms’ “bristles” however can sting your fish, corals, and you. The fireworm is the worst as its’ sting is far more vicious and it is quite aggressive and they can prey on your clean up crew, corals, or even fish.
How Did I Get Bristle Worms?
The way these pesky suckers get into your tank is by hitchhiking on live rock, corals, or other things you may have put into your tank that has been exposed to them. They hide deep within porous live rock or anywhere else they can hide. They usually come out when it’s dark so you might not notice them for quite a while. Overfeeding can lead to a massive bloom of these critters. When I was getting started I had no idea what these things were. One day I was feeding my fish and a huge number of them began poking out from every crevice. They were reproducing like mad and I didn’t know it. They were also getting pretty bold too! Adjusting my feeding regimen and manually removing some helped significantly.
Bristle Worms and Fireworms are Polychaeta which is the scientific name for these segmented marine organisms. The name Polychaeta is Latin for “Many Bristles”. The bristles are needle-like and cover the entire worm in tufts. The worms we commonly see in our tanks are pinkish in color and can be incredibly tiny to many inches in length. Since they can be very small it can make it very difficult or impossible to inspect live rock and find every worm.
Identifying Bristle Worms and Fireworms
Bristle worms are pretty common in reef tanks. If you come across a worm similar to a Bristle worm, that’s probably what it is. Fireworms are very similar but if you’ve seen them you can tell the difference fairly easily. Here are a few videos of the different worms. You should be able to see the differences. The average bristle worm is pinkish in color while the firework is brighter and has a dark back. There are many types of bristle worms that can get into your aquarium. It’s rare that you’ll come across a fireworm but possible.
The Bristle Worm video is from Reefer James. He really does like his bristle worms. I’m not as enthusiastic as he is but I would agree that most common bristle worms are not cause for alarm.
Bristle Worm and Bearded Fireworm Prevention
The way these critters get into our aquariums is on live rock. When buying live rock, consider these suggestions:
- Start with dry dead rock and cycle your tank to culture the beneficial bacteria that breaks down organic matter. Not only will you drastically reduce your chance of have to deal with these worms, but also aiptasia, mojano, unwanted nudibranch, and other pests.
- If buying ocean-harvested live rock, before dropping into your tank inspect it thoroughly. Remove any worms with tweezers and don’t forget to wear gloves to avoid stings.
- After your tank is established and pest-free remain vigilant. Anytime you add anything to your aquarium inspect it first.
- You may want to use a quarantine tank for anything you plan on adding to your aquarium. After inspecting a new purchase you can observe it over time and reinspect to ensure nothing was missed.
How to Get Rid of Fireworms and Bristle Worms
Chances are you’re reading this post because you already have a problem. Try these suggestions for removing these pests:
- You can try tweezers however they can be difficult to get to as they typically only expose a small portion of their body. If the worm breaks into separate pieces be sure to remove both pieces. The headless piece will grow a head and you’ll have a new worm!
- Get a predator to eat them:
- Several Wrasses
- Coral Banded Shrimp
- Purchase a bristle worm trap:
- Make a trap yourself:
- Watch Reefgrrl’s Video Review
- Read cromag08’s How-To on Reef2Reef
- Use a piece of panty hose with some meaty bait. The bristles get caught in the hose and you can pull it out with the worms attached.
- Stuff some meaty bait in an easily accessible small piece of live rock rubble and leave it overnight. Pull out the following day and remove the worms.
An ounce of prevention…
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Especially when it comes to any type of reef pest. If you truly want to be rid of all of your bristle worms or fireworms you’ll probably have to go with the nuclear option and start your tank over from scratch. That said, traps and predators can be very helpful in getting a large infestation down to a manageable amount.
Even if you manage to get a tank without any bristle worms or fireworms they can sneak in on a small new coral you add to your tank. If you’re serious about remaining rid of them you have to stay vigilant.
I’m personally a fan of using predators. Trying to remove them in manually with traps can be tedious at best and hit or miss at worst. Besides, watching a fish or shrimp much on a bristle worm is quite satisfying. The majority of aren’t a problem even if they are unsightly. Learning to live with them is really the best solution.