What's under the lens?

Scanning electron microscope images

Zoom in on these stunning images and see if you can recognise these specimens. Scroll down to reveal their identities.

How do scanning electron microscopes work?

Scanning electron microscopes (SEM) scan the surface of a sample using a beam of electrons. When the electrons hit atoms they interact, which produces information about the surface of the sample.

SEMs have a large depth of field, which means the images produced have a 3D appearance, like the examples above. These powerful microscopes can magnify a sample anywhere from 25x, about the same as a good magnifying glass, to 250,000x, which is about 250 times better than a light microscope.

Using SEMs at the Museum

SEMs are one of the most flexible and useful tools of the Museum's science facilities. Their resolving power can reveal tiny details, invisible to light microscopes, which can help scientists distinguish between species. Scientists can also track the effects of climate change by comparing recent samples with those from the Museum's historical collections.

The microscopes can also be used to find out the chemical composition of rocks, minerals and meteorites, the latter of which can even reveal information about the early history of the solar system.

Slideshow specimens revealed

Bumblebee leg
Bumblebee leg

Image of the comb on a bumble bee's leg, a species of Bombus. The bumblebee can pull its antenna through the curved notch, and any pollen or debris is caught on the comb fringing. 

Blackfly, Simulium damnosum
Blackfly

Image showing the head and compound eye of a blackfly, Simulium damnosum. This fly is a vector of a parasite that causes River Blindness. 

Butterfly wing
Butterfly

This image shows the scales on a butterfly wing. Microscopic ridges on the scales reflect the light and give the wing its colour.


Common wasp, Vespula vulgari
Common wasp

Image of the head of a common wasp, Vespula vulgari. Their mouthparts are well-developed for eating insects, with a tongue for sucking nectar or fruit.

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale
Dandelion

This image shows a vertical section through an unripe fruiting head of a dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, in the yellow flower stage. 


Diatom, specie of Amphitetras
Diatom

Image showing a diatom, a species of Amphitetras, with its ornate silica shell.


Human head louse, Pediculus humanus
Human head louse

This is an image of a human head louse, Pediculus humanus. These external parasites use their hook-like claws to grip the hair.


House fly, Musca domestica
House fly

Did you guess this one? It's the head of a house fly, Musca domestica, showing the compound eye.


Moss spore capsule, Ceratodon purpureus
Moss spore

This is an image of a moss spore capsule, Ceratodon purpureus.



Red grape, specie of Vitis
Red grape

This is a red grape, a species of Vitis.



Small tortoiseshell butterfly, Aglais urticae
Small tortoiseshell butterfly

This is the head of a small tortoiseshell butterfly, Aglais urticae.



Strawberry, specie of Fragaria
Strawberry

This is an image of a strawberry, a species of Fragaria.

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