Foldscope & The Dream of Easy Pollen Identification



It would be wonderful to identify pollen in honey and from pollen gathered by bees.  You can do that with a 400x-1000x microscope for a couple of hundred dollars and some training in staining techniques. So when I heard about Foldscope – an origami microscope that fits in your pocket and costs less than 2 bucks – I was excited about the prospect of beekeepers identifying pollen in the field.

Foldscope originated out of the department of bioengineering at Stanford University. The Prakash Lab designed a low cost paper microscope that more closely resembles the original Leeuwenhoek microscope than the familiar tubular compound microscopes today.

One goal of foldscope is to provide a microscope to healthcare workers in poor countries to diagnose disease. The Prakash Lab received grants from several foundations to hand out thousands of foldscopes.  I was one among thousands of beta testers from 130 different countries to request a foldscope (the beta phase is now closed) and it arrived in an envelope several weeks later.

For a good overview, watch this video of Stanford Professor Manu Prakash on this project:

The microscope is separated from a single sheet of perforated paper. It is folded into a device consisting of two parts: a handheld main stage that holds a slide and a moveable part that holds the objective lens. The moveable part can be slid up/down or left/right using your thumbs and by pushing each end of the moveable part together, the paper will bend thus raising or lowering the objective lens above the main stage – this is how you focus. There are instructions for attaching it to a cell phone camera, projecting the image onto a white surface, and for mounting an optional light module.

To appreciate what can be observed using this simple device, simply visit the Foldscope Microcosmos site.  Foldscope is a wonderful tool for introducing school children to a world they previously could not see. However, my attempts to observe – much less recognize – pollen were not so successful:

  • There are two lens. The low magnification lens is great for looking at insect legs and things like that but useless for pollen. I could not get the high magnification lens to render an image that was useful.
  • Assembling the foldscope is not a task for a fourth grade student.
  • Like all single objective microscopes, there is an inherent fuzziness due to chromatic aberration.
  • A part of the problem with recognizing pollen is the ability to observe shape and surface markings. Even with a 400x, unless a specimen is prepared correctly, it can be difficult to see the necessary surface detail.
  • Many of the images on the Microcosmos site are glass slides and stained by  – I assume – people who know how to do it correctly. Your mileage my vary. And that is part of the problem I have with Foldscope – I can see what appears to be impressive results but have no way to know if I have a chance of realistically duplicating those results.

So sadly, I will keep looking for an easy and affordable way to identify pollen. Is your experience with Foldscope similar or different?  If so, please let us know and post your results. I would love to be proven wrong about this one.


2 comments to Foldscope & The Dream of Easy Pollen Identification

  • manup

    Dear Bee Hacker,

    I was wondering of you have seen the pollen hunters project on the foldscope site. Here is the link:

    It would be fantastic for you to actually share with foldscope community what you were able to do (that was the purpose of the beta project). The community teaches each other; and everyone would be delighted to share advice to improve your images.

    All the training videos are online; and are necessary to use the tool well. and click on link above “assembly”. The last video demonstrates how to collect data.

    Finally, if you have decided to not use the Foldscope or post explorations on the Microcosmos site; please pass it on to a kid who has never used a microscope. That’s our goal. I hope you will share this tool with someone.


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