Shelby MGVs Add USB Microscope to Hotline Tools

May. 9, 2018
Ann demonstrating USB microscope on a lady beetle

How does a Master Gardener Volunteer explain to a hotline client what they are seeing through a hand lens?  First, the MGV has to show the client how to use the hand lens.  Then the client has to be able to see the beetle’s antenna or the pycnidia on a spruce needle.  All this before even explaining what the problem is. To make matters worse, the client laments having to convey the information to his spouse at home.  If you staff the hotline/helpline, this situation probably sounds familiar.

We in Shelby County have found a possible solution as a result of the generous grants provided by the state Master Gardener office in 2017.  When we made a request for tips on a microscope for our office, Lori Swihart from Licking County suggested a Carson zOrb USB microscope she had been using.  Based on Lori’s recommendation, we ordered a Carson zOrb MM-480B Digital USB Microscope ( from for approximately 50 dollars.  In the short time we used the device last summer, it already proved it worth. Thank you, Lori!

The device, about the size and shape of a goose egg, connects to a desktop or laptop computer (it will not work with a tablet) by an attached USB cord that is approximately three feet long.  One of two detachable plastic cones holds the 2.0 mega pixel camera above the object being viewed.  An integrated light illuminates the object which can be placed on a piece of paper or other “stage.”  The image then appears on the computer screen – the larger the screen, the larger the image – up to 65X.  Focusing is done by twisting the upper part of the microscope.  Depressing the top of the device allows the user to take a photograph or even a movie of the subject and store it on the computer.

Now we can share our computer screen with the client and point to exactly what we are seeing.  If so desired, we can print a color picture for the client to take home.  As Lori told us in her recommendation, the client can take the picture home “to prove that the bug is/isn’t a bedbug.”  We were also able to email some saved images to one of OSU Extension’s specialists for identification. 

The microscope is fairly easy to use, but it does take some practice to manipulate and focus.  The software allows a number of adjustments to improve image quality.  One of the settings allows time-lapse photos, so care must be taken to prevent unwanted repeated pictures that eat up memory.  How sensitive is the camera?  Ann Heeley, one of our volunteers said, “Look, you can even see the pores on the lady beetle.” While experimenting with the movie setting, we were able to observe the respirations of a lady beetle larva. 

We were really pleased with the microscope last fall and look forward to having it as one of our diagnostic tools this coming season.  While it isn’t a laboratory-quality instrument, for a 50-dollar device that stores in a desk drawer, we think we have made a good investment in the Carson zOrb Digital USB Microscope; and we would recommend it to others.  Thank you, MGV Advisory Committee, for providing the funds for this acquisition.

Written by Doug Benson, Volunteer Coordinator