van Leeuwenhoek [Microbial] Havens

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is widely regarded as one of the founding father’s of microbiology, as he was one of the first individuals to observe protozoa (1674) using a microscope that he hade made, and was also the first person to observe bacteria (1683). In a letter written in September, 1674, Leeuwenhoek describes a spiral microorganism, possibly what we know of today as Spirogyra, in his observations on lake water,

“Passing just lately over this lake, . . . and examining this water next day, I found floating therein divers earthy particles, and some green streaks, spirally wound serpent-wise, and orderly arranged, after the manner of the copper or tin worms, which distillers use to cool their liquors as they distil over”

Van Leeuwenhoek originally referred  to these microscopic creatures as animalcules (from the Latin animalculum, meaning tiny animal). Most of his “animalcules” are today referred to as unicellular organisms.

Van Leeuwenhoek, made these observations using lake water, but as the availability of water is the main factor controlling microbial growth, many of the watery niches that we accidentally create in our modern urban environments are also capable of supporting thriving and complex and usually invisible microbial ecosystems.

This is the background behind my concept of Van Leeuwenhoek Havens (Microbial Havens). In a sense, the underpinning process here mimics what we might do at the macroscopic scale if we wanted to turn our gardens into wildlife havens, for example, by deliberately planting wild plants to encourage insects and other wildlife. Here though the objective is to encourage the establishment of complex and thriving microbial ecosystems. The technique is simple. Find an old bowl, jar or other container capable of holding water, fill it with rainwater, then add dead leaves or other dried and dead material from the garden. Prevent this from drying out by topping it up with more rain water and in a few months you will have a thriving and diverse microbial ecosystem.

This is an example of a Van Leeuwenhoek Haven which I established in my own garden (below).


An old cat food bowl in which I established a microbial haven


This is the portable  Newton Field Microscope that I used to observe the animalcules.


Observing animalcules in my kitchen using the portable Newton Field Microscope


Below are some of the many infusoria that I have observed in my van Leeuwenhoek Haven



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