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Perfect Picture Books for Gardener Gifts

This time of year, when the holidays are roaring down on us like a freight train, I always suggest practical gifts for gardeners: Things like water-powered weeders, flame weeders, permethrin treated trousers for tick protection and BTI dunks and granules for mosquito prevention. But I'm going to double down on the topic this year by also continuing our ongoing 'book club', wherein I recommend some of my favorite gardening books. This time out the books are gift-level pictorial and garden helpful.

We begin with "Bees; an up-close look at pollinators around the world" By Sam Droege and Laurence Packer (Voyager Press 2015; cover price: $25.). Every time I look at this beautiful and insightful book it blows my mind; astonishing photos of native bees from every continent (at least every continent that has bees) with brief but wonderful text about their habits.

The diversity is amazing! There's the "Australian Minute Baldy" that looks like a glow-in-the-dark charm you'd get from a gumball machine. How minute are they? To misquote a tobacco commercial from the sixties, just a silly two millimeters long; but they still do a great job of pollinating plants in the Myrtle family, especially eucalyptus, from one cultivar of which (lemon eucalyptus) we derive one of the best natural mosquito repellants.

"The Island of New Guinea", note the authors, "is the center of diversity for 'Badass Bees'", so named because they look...well...really badass.

Next up is Africa and its 'Caramel Colored Cuckoo'. Like all insects and birds called "cuckoos", these bees lay their eggs in the nests of other bees in a way that defies detection. The babies of both parents emerge but the baby cuckoo is "armed with huge mandibular scimitars". Yes, it's a 'bee eat bee world' out there.

In South America we find the candy-apple green 'Black Winged Cuckoo Orchid Bee'; the truly-named 'Tomato-colored bee' and one of my personal favorites, the 'long-nosed Sand lover', whose schnoz is as big as his body!

And we're only halfway through the book; but we must move on... "Pollination Power" by Heather Angel (University of Chicago Press; 2016; cover price: $40.) Elegantly printed in Italy on massively heavy stock, this true 'coffee table' book is a tour de force, granting equal time to fabulous plants and the pollinators that love them.

Or maybe it's the other way around. The relationship between plants and pollinators is, to go all Disney, 'a tale as old as time'. Plants have evolved to more than just lure their pollinators. Most have 'doorways' that only certain species can enter. The pollinators come for richly sweet nectar, but to get it, they have to go through a forest of pollen that clings to them and gets deposited next door when the pollinator moves on to another plant.

The book features striking images of plants alone, like the "luminously turquoise colored jade vine" and the 'pin-eyed bogbean flower'.

But the best images are of plants and pollinators gettin' it on, like the bumblebee who exits a squash flower COMPLETELY covered in pollen; the rainbow lorikeet (like a parakeet) feeding on nectar from a 'drunken parrot tree'; honey possums; the crazy-looking bee-fly whose impossibly long proboscis gets covered in pollen as it sucks up nectar; and my personal favorites, the hummingbird moths.

For diversity we also have the gecko, who pollinates plants while lapping up their nectar in Madagasdar (and then tries to sell you car insurance); beautiful butterflies; more birds; bats; beetles; flies; and many more. The book also covers 'anti-pollinators' that either 'rob' the plants by getting the nectar while avoiding the pollen or creatures that hide nearby and eat the pollinators, like the scary-looking white crab spider.

The book ends with a guide to pollinator-friendly plants as well as plants with flowers that are pretty but pretty useless to pollinators.

We close with a book that salutes pollinators and other beneficial insects, "Attracting beneficial bugs to your garden" by Jessica Wallister (Timber Press; 2014; cover price: $24.95). This book has lots of photos, but they're all tied to directly useful information for home gardeners, like showing clearly what the rarely-seen beneficial ground beetle looks like; what a caterpillar looks like after its been parasitized with the larvae of a predatory mini-wasp (don't squish it now!); and what the eggs of a ladybug look like. Really helpful.

The chapter on 'beneficial bug profiles' goes into great detail about beneficials like the wonderfully named minute pirate bug, which attacks a huge number of scurvy pests. There's a great close up photo of the glowworm, the larval form of the firefly and the enemy of slugs and snails; a beautiful photo of a dragonfly (the best beneficial for use against mosquitoes); and a great photo of a praying mantis egg case that confirms what I thought when I saw them in my garden last year.

There are also chapters on the best plants for beneficials, detailed plans for a beneficial-friendly garden and more. There's so much info here that this book will be dog-eared within a year.

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