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Are you familiar with the story of Wilson Bentley?
If you don’t know his name,
you know his work.
Have you cut out paper snowflakes?
Drawn a snowflake shape on paper?
Any image we think of when we think of snowflakes is because
of Wilson Bentley.
Mr. Bentley was a Vermont farmer who was fascinated with snow
and in the late 1800s he set out to photograph snowflakes.
He photographed hundreds of snowflakes
which at the time was a feat considering his equipment of early cameras
and an old microscope from his mother’s school teacher days.
So, we thought,
if Wilson Bentley can do it,
so can we!
Today’s post is another installment in the microscope series.
Let’s get started!
Materials Needed to Capture & View Snowflakes
You’ll need to gather some items and keep them cold until you are ready to begin.
- Microscope– A dissecting scope will provide a whole view of your snowflake and give you room to get in and out from under the lenses, but we have a light microscope and we used it well!
- Glass Slides– at least one, but I like having several on hand in case the slide gets dirty in the process
- Black Construction Paper– for collecting the snowflakes
- Table on Location– for your microscope and computer to sit on if you are taking pictures
- Sheltered Spot Outdoors– you need to be outside so it’s cold but not exposed to the elements so you can succeed in delicate work
- Microscope Camera– not necessary for simply observing the snowflakes, but if you want to record the moment you need a camera
- Laptop– if you are using a digital camera with your microscope, you need a computer to run it
- Enthusiasm– definitely helps if you are cheerfully on the mission
- Patience– also where enthusiasm comes in handy because you might wipe out the first couple tries!
- Snow– freshly fallen or freshly falling snow. You’ll fluffy snow rather than packed snow
How to Collect Snowflakes
Collecting the snowflakes can be tricky.
It requires patience
Your equipment needs to be outside at least ten minutes before you try to collect and observe.
If it’s too warm, the snowflakes will melt when you collect them.
A few quick tips:
- Use falling snow– this is probably the fastest way to success
- Try freshly fallen snow– second best to catching snow as it falls
- Find dry snow– if it hasn’t just fallen, you can usually find snow crystals in a dry snow especially when the sun is shining on it
Use a piece of black construction paper
or black cardboard or foam.
If the snow is falling, simply hold out the paper when it’s cold enough.
To collect snowflakes that have already fallen,
take your paint brush and gently touch the tip to the side of the snowflake.
You’ll be able to lift it and take it to your microscope.
It takes practice, but once you get going you’ll be a pro.
The snow crystals . . . come to us not only to reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in Nature, but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade way. But though the beauty of the snow is evanescent, like the beauties of the autumn, as of the evening sky, it fades but to come again.
Different weather produces different sorts of snow crystals.
I have a new hobby now.
You can bet several times a season in upstate NY, I’ll be snowflake hunting!
Using the Microscope to Observe Snowflakes
Once you have a selection of snowflakes on your black construction paper, it’s time to get one under the microscope.
Make sure all of your equipment is cold.
This is critical because if your equipment is too warm, the snowflake will melt.
- Place a microscope slide– underneath the lenses on the stage and hold it in place with the stage clips
- Fluff the Paper– to find individual crystals with your eye
- Use a Paint Brush– to pick up a crystal by touching the point gently to the crystal
- Carefully Move the Crystal– to the slide which is already in place and press the brush away from the crystal on the slide to get the snowflake to stay while removing the brush.
- Steer Clear of the Lenses– as you remove the brush
- Search for the Snowflake– as you would any object. It will be easy to see. You’ll be able to see from the side where to place the snowflake or where to move the stage in order to find the image.
- Move the Side around– once you see it and see how much of the snowflake you can see
- Take Pictures or Video– with your digital camera if you have one. We got some video of the snowflake melting. Which is not as slow as you might thing!
- Repeat with Different Snowflakes– trust me. You’ll be looking for more!
Taking Images with a Microscope Camera
To get images of your snowflakes,
you need a digital microscope camera.
If you have a microscope,
the camera is a must have!
You can take still images
Again, these images are taken with an LED Light Microscope at 40x.
They are close ups, so our field of view is small.
That means I’m moving the stage around to get views of my snowflakes,
but none of them are whole crystals.
A different type of microscope,
would get me a view of the entire crystal.
Pretty sure a dissecting scope is in my future.
But, these are gorgeous!
Resources for Learning More about Snowflakes
- Snowflake Bentley– A biography of Wilson Bentley, who spent his life studying and photographing snowflakes. How we “see” snowflakes is because of his work.
- Snowflake Bentley on Prime Video– for those with Amazon Prime, you can watch an animation of the book pages.
- Snowflakes in Photographs– the seminal work by Wilson Bentley which contains his 100s of snowflake pictures
- The Story of Snow: The Science of Winter’s Wonder– elementary level book detailing how snow is formed and how snow crystals are started and grow. Great book to read and then observe your own snowflakes to see for yourself!
- Snow Crystals– a Dover book shares Bentley’s photographs and how to take pictures of the snowflakes
- Field Guide to Snowflakes– how amazing would it be to identify snowflakes with a field guide?
- Curious about Snow– a guide to snow from Smithsonian
- Snow is Falling– a young science book on snow for simple experiments and observations
- The Secret Life of a Snowflake– how snowflakes form and see pictures of them forming in the author’s lab. This guy is a modern day Snowflake Bentley!
- Snowflakes: Creative Paper Cutouts– Take your snowflake making to a new level
- Snowflakes for All Seasons: 72 Fold and Cut Snowflakes– another for the creative among you
- NaturExplorers Winter Studies– 4 winter nature study units from Cindy at Our Journey Westward.
More Microscope & Nature Posts
- The Beginner’s Guide to Using a Microscope– Video tutorial post on how to use a light microscope. You’ll learn the tools to have on hand and how to focus in both low and high power. I share some tricks of the trade with you as a biologist and biology teacher. Don’t miss it!
- 3 Easy Steps to Observing Pond Life under a Microscope– If you’ve ever wanted to collect and observe pond critters under a microscope (a standard practice for observers!), this post shares where to find them and how to see them under your microscope.
- The Beginner’s Guide to Microscopic Life in a Pond– a follow up post on microorganisms, this post offers a field guide to common critters you’ll find along with how to identify them with your microscope.
- Observing Onion Cells– One of my most popular posts of all time! How to prepare an onion for observation of a plant cell.
- Nature Journal Calendars– Year round nature study with downloadable, printable calendars for your students to record their observations.