On test: microscopes

If you’re serious about looking at insects in close-up, a binocular microscope is essential. Richard Jones puts some affordable models through their paces.

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On test: microscopes

If you’re serious about looking at insects in close-up, a binocular microscope is essential. Richard Jones puts some affordable models through their paces.

Budding entomologists soon learn that naming insects can be tricky. When you move beyond butterflies, ladybirds and dragonflies, the id guides start to detail minute technical distinctions between creatures that are, to all extents and purposes, indistinguishable to the naked eye.

A good hand lens may help but often even that will not provide sufficient resolution.

If you want to compare the intricate wing veins of bees and wasps, judge the glints and grooves on a beetle’s back or count the antennal segments of an ant, only a stereoscopic (binocular) microscope will do. 

This is a complex scientific instrument, and though student scopes are available for the price of a slap-up meal, top-end professional models cost the same as a small car.

Luckily, insects, plants, fossils and rocks can all be examined easily using the microscopes that have been tested here.

For this, you only need a low magnification (in microscope terms). Usually, x10 is enough to view a whole bug, or x30 is sufficient for inspecting eye facets.

If you require higher power, you can always add stronger interchangeable eyepieces later. A few scopes will also take a screw-on supplementary lens for further flexibility.

As with binoculars, it’s important that both eye tubes can be moved in and out to fit the size of your face, and one of them must be independently adjustable to compensate for slight differences between the viewer’s eyes.

Once you have set up the scope to suit your vision, you’ll find that others will need to readjust it before use.

All of the instruments tested here have built-in lighting, but you can save some money by choosing non-lit versions. Even the best microscope can benefit from the added light produced by a cheap desk lamp (mine was £3.99 from IKEA).

Other options

It’s worth considering alternative ways of viewing objects in close-up, though they all have drawbacks.

USB microscopes plug into computers and act as basic ‘macro-webcams’. They can be great for collecting digital images or demonstrating to a class, but can’t hope to match the optical quality of binocular microscopes.

Field microscopes are another option. Some such as the Field DM5 are mini-stereoscopes, while others such as the Trekker are a hybrid between a super hand lens and a monocular. However, they are limited by their optics, lighting and flexibility.

© BBC Wildlife Magazine

© BBC Wildlife Magazine

© BBC Wildlife Magazine

© BBC Wildlife Magazine

© BBC Wildlife Magazine

© BBC Wildlife Magazine

© BBC Wildlife Magazine

© BBC Wildlife Magazine

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