5 Tips for Viewing Bacteria Under a Microscope

Bacteria are almost everywhere, but even with a microscope, they aren’t always easy to see. It is possible to see bacteria with a digital microscope, provided you exercise a little patience and follow a few simple steps. Given the incredible diversity of bacteria and their prevalence throughout all ecosystems, seeking out bacteria under a microscope is always a fun adventure–you never know exactly what you’re going to get. Below are five tips for successfully viewing bacteria under a microscope. 


  1. Prepare a Sample

To prepare a sample of bacteria, you should start with a clean slide and distilled water. Before dropping the water on the slide, make sure your dropper is completely clean. A dirty dropper can easily skew your results and make it much more difficult to find what you’re looking for. After you’ve placed a couple of drops of distilled water on the slide, add your bacteria culture. Since bacteria are mere millimeters in length, certain samples may benefit from Gram staining. Gram staining can be done by adding methylene blue or safranin to your cell culture. This will enable your bacteria to be seen more readily through the microscope. 

  1. Experiment with Lens Sizes

In order to actually see bacteria swimming, you’ll need a lens with at least a 400x magnification. A 1000x magnification can show bacteria in stunning detail. However, at a higher magnification, it can be increasingly difficult to keep them in focus as they move. Regardless of the highest magnification you want to use, always start small and focus before you move up to the next level of magnification. Skipping steps will make it considerably difficult for you to focus at higher numbers.


  1. Look Intently

If you’re not used to finding bacteria on a slide, you may have trouble at first glance. They can be difficult to recognize to the untrained eye and may even just look like dirt. Certain types of bacteria like to clump together, making it even more impossible to pick out the microorganisms from ambient dust. You may find it beneficial to start with pre-made cultures or slides containing one specific strain of bacteria, until you learn to recognize a few different kinds. While it can be interesting to find out what’s lurking in your garden soil or drinking water, it may take a little training before you will be able to look through a lens and be able to confidently identify bacteria. 

  1. Remember Safety First

For classroom experiments or fun at home, prepared slides are the way to go, especially with younger students. Steer clear of using food that has spoiled or body fluids in hopes of finding an interesting sample. Always wear gloves when handling bacteria. In fact, it is good practice to wear gloves any time you use a microscope to prevent dirt and body oils from clouding up your view. 


  1. Take Photos of Your Findings 

Once you’ve mastered the art of finding and identifying different types of bacteria, you may want to take your experiment to the next level and photograph your subject. Microscope cameras can take images from a digital microscope and project and save them directly to a computer. This may spark an interest in a whole new hobby, as photographing microorganisms can produce stunning, artful results. There are many types of microscope cameras and accessories that can help you achieve a wide variety of images. An equally large amount of image editing software exists to allow you to manipulate the images into bright and impactful compositions.

Viewing bacteria under a microscope can initially be a bit of an uphill battle, but the learning curve will not be as steep if you follow these five tips. As long as you are prepared with all the right (and clean!) equipment ahead of time, you can find fascinating worlds within a slide. And if you’re lucky, you can even capture intriguing images to share.