I know what you’re thinking: there’s not a whole lot of life out there in the cold landscapes when ponds are frozen and snow covers up most of the fun spots to explore in the forest. Thing is, there are still a few ways to keep exploring microscopic life in the winter! Here are some options!
1. I love lichen!
Lichen is everywhere in the winter, especially on trees. Take a small sample of it, and soak it in water for about an hour. Then, put some of that water on a slide or in a petri dish to observe under your microscope.
For added fun, put the lichen under a stereoscope and explore its various colours and textures!
2. Sidewalks and Concrete.
Did you know that you can find tiny creatures in sidewalk cracks? You can also find them on many concrete structures, especially near vegetation or trees! A couple of years ago, I took a small sample of snow from my concrete balcony to look at it under the microscope. Lo and behold, I found one Tardigrade – my very first! Out of curiosity, I observed another sample of snow, and I found another Tardigrade. Hmmm, I thought, maybe there are more? When the snow melted, I took a sample of that melted water and found about 40 or 50 of them!
Is it possible that we’ve under-estimated concrete as a potential thriving habitat for Tardigrades?! Have a look, and see if you can find some on your own balcony or patio!
You’ll find other creatures too, like rotifers. Rotifers can survive harsh temperatures, so there’s a good chance you’ll find them in the wintertime, too.
3. In your home.
Microscopic life is all around us. There are creatures in your vacuum’s dust bag, in your shower scum, and in the soil in your potted plants. Take samples from various places around the house.
Take a dust bunny, and soak it in water, and then observe the water!
When you water your plants, collect the draining water and put that under the microscope.
4. Culture them!
The very first time bacteria was observed was when a merchant put a cup of water with some pepper in it on the windowsill for a few weeks. He found tiny little moving things when he looked at it under his handmade microscope. You can do the same thing. You can clip a leaf from your plant, put it in water, and then observe it after a week or two.
That being said, I REALLY don’t recommend culturing bacteria at home, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you’ve run a few searches about culturing microbes, you might have read about ‘agar’ – I don’t recommend using this at home, unless you really understand the safety protocols concerning cultures. Just keep it simple – all you need is a few leaves, some soil or other organic matter, and soaking that stuff in water will provide you with some life to look at. Just don’t let it get too gross!
5. Let it snow!
Earlier, I mentioned I found my first Tardigrades in snow. But, you can also find all sorts of stuff in snow. Little ciliates, rotifers, algae, minerals, bacteria, the list goes on. Take some snow samples, and if it doesn’t snow often where you are, feel free to put a container of snow in your freezer!
I also recommend looking at snowflakes and ice pellets under your microscope. Snowflakes might melt too quickly, but if you take a little chunk of snow, and watch it melt, you’ll see a whole new landscape transform before your eyes. Ice pellets are really cool too because they take different shapes depending on the temperature!
6. Create a pond jar
Creating a pond jar at home is one of the easiest ways to have microscopic life to look at year-round. Some creatures, like daphnia, synura, and many others won’t survive very long in captivity. But, other creatures like copepods, freshwater shrimps, worms, and rotifers will live happily in a little jar, or a an unfiltered aquarium, for months and months on end.
There are a few ways to create a pond jar, but the easiest way I’ve found is to go to a local pond, get a bit of dirt, some algae and plant life, some rocks and put it all in a jar, leaving a bit of empty space and air at the top. You can close the jar and it’ll be ok. It WILL get dirty in there, especially if you don’t have any snails.
Another way to do it is to leave the top open, but eventually, the water will start evaporating so you’ll have to keep adding some unchlorinated water to it. I’ve found it helpful to slow down the evaporation by adding a bit of cling wrap on top of an uncovered jar or glass bowl.
Pro tip: I always add at least one moss ball to a pond jar. Makes it look pretty, but I think it might also help with oxygen.
7. Look in the fridge!
Ever look at food under your microscope?! That can be a lot of fun! Take samples of fruits and vegetables. Look at salt, sugar, spices!
You can even look at bread mold if you happen to have some moldy bread!
8. When all else fails, there’s always the florist.
Yep, the florist might be your best friend in the wintertime. Why? ‘Cause you can get flowers. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen under the microscope is the petal of flowers. Get one of each variety. And then, look at the pollen. Look at the leaves.
Also, florists sometimes carry live moss. Guess what you can find in moss? Tardigrades! (You can also find Tardigrades and Rotifers in dried moss, so keep your options open.)
9. The pet store is awesome too!
Another place to check out is your local pet store, especially if they have aquariums. I’ve found it very easy to get a free sample of aquarium water to take home to look at under the microscope. Don’t forget to check out any pet stores that have saltwater aquariums, as they might actually have creatures you’ve never seen before.
The pet store might also carry moss, sometimes live, sometimes in boxes. If you soak the dried moss, you might also find creatures.
10. Your body is a wonderland.
No, really. We all have creatures living in and on us. As an experiment, you can put tape on your skin (try around the nose), for several hours, and then put that tape on a slide. There’s a chance you might find some mites! Don’t worry, it’s totally normal – we all have them!
You can look at skin cells, your hair, your ear wax, what’s under your nails. Your body is pretty fascinating. Take the time to explore it on a microscopic level during the winter months.
Pro tip: it’s easier to see stuff like skin cells by adding a bit of dye to them. You can find something called “methylene blue” through your local pharmacy, or maybe even your pet store!
11. Cheese, please!
Did you know that there are some cheeses that are made with mites?! Mimolette cheese, made in France, is made with mites. Don’t believe me? Check out this pic I took of a mite inside a piece of Mimolette! The mites apparently help with the flavour. Of course, they’re dead when you buy the cheese, but it’s still fun to observe it under the scope. In fact, I encourage you to go through your fridge and see what else might be interesting up close!
There’s always something to explore.
Wintertime can be dull and boring for those of us who enjoy going to our local ponds in the summertime and exploring what lives there. But, you can still explore other stuff when the pond freezes over. I hope this info has helped you out. It took me a lot of time, and patience, to find new ways of exploring and having fun with a microscope in the winter. If you know of any more ways to do this, please feel free to leave a comment!