Getting started with microscopy

I talked about algae last week at an event organised by Durham Wildlife Trust (part of the publicity for The Natural History of Upper Teesdale) and I promised them a post about how to get started in microscopy and, more specifically, to start discovering more about algae.  I have illustrated the post with some of Chris Carter’s spectacular images of algae to whet your appetites for exploring the world of freshwater algae …

Broadly speaking, the natural historian wants a microscope for one of two tasks: to make small things bigger or to make invisible things visible.   There is not really a sharp dividing line between these two categories, as the illustrations of Cladophora filaments in “Summertime blues …” show.   You might start out looking at a handful of green slime pulled from your garden pond, but then you might see smaller algae growing on those filaments that you want to examine too.   The good news is that you should be able to get hold of a reasonable microscope with the capacity to magnify up to 400 times for about the same outlay as a digital SLR camera.   That should let you see all but the smallest algae.   If you are sure that your interests lie mainly in “making small things bigger” then you should consider a low power dissecting microscope (these are probably the best way of introducing children to microscopy, as there is a smooth transition between the tangible but small object that has piqued their interest and the larger, more detailed image that they see when they peer through the microscope’s eyepieces).

However, even though a basic microscope need not cost a fortune, good microscopes are expensive so my advice to a beginner is to search out a rerfurbished second hand microscope.  In north east England, I can recommend JB Microscopes but Google should help you find dealers elsewhere in the country.   A reasonably local supplier is necessary because you should really try out a microscope before you buy.   There are reputable mail order suppliers (e.g. Brunel Microscopes) but I would not want to spend a large sum on a piece of equipment that I had not had a chance to use first.

A colony of the diatom Meridion circulare.  The image at the top of the post shows desmids from the genus Micrasterias.   Both photographs by Chris Carter. 

If you are on a limited budget, I suggest you go for a good basic microscope with the option to fit a camera at a later stage.  It is possible to take a reasonable photograph by pointing a digital camera (or even a smartphone) down the microscope’s eyepiece and it is better to put up with the shortcomings of these images than to sacrifice the quality of the microscope itself.

Once you have your microscope, you will also need slides, coverslips, forceps, some plastic Pasteur pipettes, a couple of needles, a scalpel and some collecting tubes.  You can buy all of these from Brunel Microscopes and NHBS, both of whom cater for both the amateur and professional markets.   They also sell boxes of prepared slides, which are a good way to get some experience at using a microscope.

The microscopic world generally lacks the type of user-friendly well-illustrated identification guides that help us identify wild flowers, birds, butterflies and so on.   Most books are aimed at the academic market and are, consequently, expensive.   If you want to get started with freshwater algae, one useful resource is this guide to the larger algae found in rivers: RAPPER_manual_version1.7_May2016.  It was produced to accompany a method for rapid assessment of streams and rivers and, as the journey towards formal publication has stalled, I am happy to make it available here.

Hydrodictyon reticulatum, the water-net, photographed by Chris Carter.  500 mm (micrometres) is half a millimetre.

Useful websites include AlgaeVision and the Diatom Flora of Britain and Ireland.  As most freshwater algal genera are found throughout the world, Diatoms of North America is also a useful resource.

The Freshwater Biological Association have affordable booklets on the identification of desmids and diatoms and there is an AIDGAP key, too, for freshwater diatoms.   The latter is badly in need of updating but, people assure me, is still useful for beginners.

There are plenty of other online resources, but l would recommend visiting the website of the Quekett Microscopical Club, a long-established group of enthusiasts whose interests span the whole realm of natural history and optics.   www.microscopy-uk.org.uk is also worth a visit.   Both websites will help you as you start your explorations of the hidden worlds of nature.

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