Sooner or later most beginners, having become interested in mushrooms and toadstools to the extent that they feel they are able reliably to recognize several of the commoner species in the field and are proudly managing to cope with some of the basic terminology without too much trouble, make the above statement. Several questions now arise. Perhaps the first is "Well, do I really need one? They are expensive aren’t they and I’m getting on perfectly well with the help (for example) of the photographs in Roger Phillips." The answer to this is "Yes, you do need one if you are to make progress because in no time at all you will find that you are making mistakes in identification because photographs, however good, are not enough." If you read the text too, and let’s face it we don’t always when we’re starting because its easier not to and the text can be a bit daunting, can’t it, you will know why. There are things to be looked at which don’t show up in the pictures. The next questions are- "In that case how do I go about buying an instrument to look at these things?" and not least "What do I do with it when I’ve got it?". Here you may hit on some problems we’re going to try to help you with.

So what exactly is the microscope for?

Basically it is used for examining the spores and other features e.g. the hyphal structure (the basic tissue) of fungi. Spores come in different shapes and sizes and their surface and internal features vary. The different parts of fungi e.g. basidia, cystidia, asci, and the pattern of the hyphae inside the gills of some fungi may all vary too according to the group or species the individual fungus belongs to. These things are described in all but the simplest literature. They are the clues to accurate identification and they cannot be seen without the aid of a microscope.

So what sort of microscope do I need? The brochures are bewildering.

A lot of things need to be taken into account here, not least cost. But first of all you should ask what you need the microscope to do. For example, in order to measure spores and observe the markings on most of them at least fairly satisfactorily, you need a microscope which will magnify specimens to around x400, certainly no less. For some species a magnification of x1000 is necessary. Other features such as basidia or cystidia may be seen at a lower magnification. On the whole, ideally one needs a microscope with a range 10x to 1000x.

A specimen to be examined under the microscope is first placed on a glass slide which in the case of the cheapest instruments is then secured to the stage of the instrument by spring clips. When the slide needs to be adjusted this must be done manually, a process which can be somewhat irksome particularly for beginners who are trying to cope with so many other new things. More expensive equipment has a mechanical stage which is moved by two control knobs. Very much easier to use! And worth the price if you can possibly afford it.

Objects to be studied need to be illuminated. Daylight is no use at all. A separate lamp is effective enough and is the cheaper option though again more trouble to use as it needs more careful adjustment than the more expensive alternative which is built-in lighting. If one has a room where equipment can be left set up then built-in illumination is not so important. Those of us without such a facility appreciate the convenience it affords. It is no use having an instrument which is too much trouble to set up and use.

With cheaper microscopes the whole instrument tilts forward including the stage when one needs to use it, at any rate from a sitting position. The worst that can happen here - and it has been known! - is that the mechanism eventually works loose causing the microscope to swing forward under its own weight and to topple to the floor. More often there is the disadvantage that since wet slides are commonly used in looking at fungi the sloping stage on which they sit causes, for example, spores immersed in fluid on the slide to drift down the field of view making observation and measurement very difficult. More expensive microscopes have a flat stage and inclined eyepieces which makes working much simpler. It really can be false economy to invest in a very cheap piece of equipment.

If you want to measure spores you are going to need a graticule eyepiece. Don’t be put off by the name! It’s a small piece of glass with a scale printed on it which you place inside the larger eyepiece. It needs calibrating for each microscope however but we can certainly help you with this.

Finally, microscopes are either monocular (one eyepiece) or binocular (twin eyepieces). The latter are more expensive and they are more comfortable to use but they are by no means essential, I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear.

How are you feeling about it now? Still a little confused perhaps. We could advise you to purchase one of the very good booklets which have appeared recently in order to learn more or to attend a course but if you are an absolute beginner we are going to say don’t do this (except in the case of ours!) and for very good reason. Our experience of all such excellent provision is that it is intended for the amateur but that does not necessarily mean you. It does assume some prior scientific training and knowledge of instruments however basic. So if you are without "O" level Biology or whatever, and some of the more experienced of us started off that way so don’t give up hope, please use the help more immediately to hand in the Group. Talk to someone and there are several of us around, who already uses a microscope for mycology. Experience counts and this is one area where the "sitting next to Nellie (or for that matter Joe)" approach really works best when you want to learn - whatever the training pundits might say to the contrary.

You haven’t put me off! In spite of everything, I really do want one!!

So down to practical details. We have given you some idea of the basic requirements for mycological use. You have absorbed all the good advice above. You have looked at as many models as you can and discussed the pros and cons of each with the person who is using it. You are now in happier position to consult the catalogues. We can’t stress too strongly that it is false economy to buy a cheaper model than you could afford with which you are subsequently dissatisfied or find inconvenient to use. What do we mean by cheap though? Well prices do vary. There are several reputable makes around and prices here range from about 100 to several 1000. The Russian "Biolam" series is still very popular. Models vary in price according to the degree of sophistication of each but they are all very reasonably priced and have the distinct advantage of being interchangeable. They can all be upgraded with the wide range of accessories available. However they are gradually being ousted by the Chinese equivalents. Modern Chinese microscopes are a vast improvement on previous models. We have very good reports on them from users who quote better optics than the Russian models and more modern design features. They are excellent value for what they cost. What about second-hand microscopes? We have known members to obtain incredible bargains. Microscopes are good for very many years if looked after properly and they can be checked and serviced by firms like Balmain Instruments (see below). One can save quite a bit of money with a second-hand purchase but it is important to go to a reputable dealer and examine the instrument very carefully before buying.

I’ve got one! Now what?

Well this is not all of course. You’ll have to learn to use it and you’ll need a lot of bits and pieces to go with it. Lots of things like slides, cover slips, immersion oil, stage micrometers, chemicals and stains (not too many of these though). And you need to practise the techniques of measuring spores and cutting sections. All of these things take time and are really best done in the company of a group. As we said earlier reading about them in a book is not the best way to learn. Often quite simple things seem very hard to grasp from reading only. Which is why we intend to set up many more group sessions where we can all learn from each other. HOPE YOU’LL JOIN US!


Balmain Instruments Ltd., 25, Stamford Park Rd, ALTRINCHAM, Cheshire WA15 9EL

Tele: 061-927-7621

Northern Biological Supplies Ltd, 3, Betts Ave, Martlesham Heath, IPSWICH IP5 7HR

Tele: 0473-623995

Lakeland Microscopes, Holly Bank, Windermere Road, Lindale, Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria LA11 6LB

Tele: 05395-34737

Hampshire Micro, The Microscope Shop, Oxford Rd, SUTTON SCOTNEY, Hants SO21 3JG

Tele: 0962-760228


Honorary Secretary: Martin Elsworth, 2 Borwick Close, Warton,
Carnforth, Lancashire LA5 9QY.

E-mail:         Web site:

An excellent very friendly Society freely offering a wealth of advice on all aspects of microscopy. It tends to concentrate on the technical aspects of the microscope rather than the techniques of identification for particular disciplines but you would expect to go to your own specialist group for this. For an annual subscription of only 6 you will receive an interesting Newsletter three times a year, have access to a comprehensive library dealing with many topics relating to Natural History and receive an invitation to a series of six lectures and meetings a year. The society has produced a good simple low-cost booklet on microscopy "Microscopy - First Steps Into a Secret World" which is very suitable for the absolute beginner. The "Guide For The Amateur Mycologist" produced by our own national society the B.M.S. is excellent but for the more experienced amateur. I recommend you consider joining this Manchester society even though you may be unable to attend all the meetings. Enquire about country membership if you live far out of town. All enquiries to the Secretary, address above.

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