CRAIGHEAD COUNTY -- Is it ironic that the very people who hung the wasp-nesting box on the ceiling of their front porch are now pointing with unhappy concern at a wasp on the porch ceiling?
Dark and red, its tiny fighter-jet wings blur off and on, off and on.
"They do that to cool a nest," Norman Lavers says.
It's a hot day, for sure. But this wasp is too far away to be fanning the man-made nesting box, and there is no other wasp nest ... unless there's one behind the siding, inside the ceiling.
"Ohhh, I hope not," Cheryl Lavers quavers.
But she had just been enthusiastically describing the curious habits of wasps, and her accent -- English sounding, but she's from South Wales -- had made them seem to be her talented little buddies.
"We don't like to be stung," she says.
The man-made nest box, a wooden teardrop packed with bamboo tubes, attracts mason wasps. The reddish black wasp she is worried about is not a mason wasp.
Mason wasps are peaceable, like their cousins, the potter wasps (Eumenes fraternus). You would know this if you'd read the Laverses' new book: 100 Insects of Arkansas and the MidSouth: Portraits & Stories (Et Alia Books, 2018, $26.95). Mason females lay their eggs in tubes -- which is why some of the nest box's bamboo tubes are plugged with white-dry mud. Inside each sealed tube, one lucky little mason wasp egg snuggles beside one very unfortunate caterpillar, breakfast of champions.
The red wasp on the ceiling is a member of the tribe Polistes, paper-wasps that also are represented in the book, but by a yellow-and-black species. Yellow and black signals, "Step back, Jack." What does reddish black say? In this case, "Run!"
Norman and Cheryl Lavers are the kind of people who can tell wasps from wasps without obtaining doctorates in entomology.
As expert amateurs, they've made presentations about insects to crowds of outdoorsy folks, like Auduboners and Arkansas Master Naturalists. Although they look like quietly retired grandparents, they are rigorous. They are the people who turn their front yard into a butterfly garden and prune the oak seedlings that proliferate beside the driveway so the critters munching their leaves remain at eye level.
Shaded by its cultivated thicket, their tastefully decorated, tidy house -- "Do you want to buy it?" he offers. "All the books come with it." -- stands just outside Jonesboro and so enjoys no garbage collection, no gas. But also no streetlights, which has been great. Streetlights confuse insects and other living things.
Knowing what keeps wild things happy at home has allowed the Laverses to photograph many of the stars of 100 Insects without driving all over the state. But also they drove all over the state.
The book cover names them as co-authors, but Norman is the writer, she says, gently.
In fact, he's the somewhat famous writer, and you would know that that if you'd ever looked him up in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture -- he and his Porter Prize for Literature, his novels, short stories and memoir, his O Henry Award, Fulbright Award, National Endowment for the Arts grants, and his three-decade career as an English and creative writing professor.
Cheryl's a painter who exhibits her artwork -- lately, detailed portraits of leaves. The book doesn't include her art, but they did collaborate. Many of the photos are hers, and she wrestled the computers. He doesn't like those computers.
Anyway, his right eye has been knocked off kilter somehow, and doesn't really close, and he no longer has properly binocular vision. He bumps into stuff. A bout of Bell's palsy hasn't helped.
Any couple that manages to work together knows conflict is a proof of compatibility. But what isn't after 51 years of marriage?
"Friends said it was so peaceful around the house now that we weren't speaking to each other," Norman quips.
"That's not true, that's not true," Cheryl chastises, merely routinely exasperated. He does like to tease, including in prose, including in their book manuscript, where more than one playful crack died under editor Erin Wood's delete key.
Cheryl: "Norman did the writing on the book, and then when he finished it he let me read it. My editing is not great, so it was more a case of 'You used "but" five times on this page' -- "
Norman: "I said, 'You don't know your buts.'"
Cheryl: "That's the kind of humor that we cut out of the book."
100 Insects is a happy marriage of conversational language and sensational photographs, which the couple shot -- and stored -- over the 18 years since he retired from Arkansas State University. The book includes startling examples of the Laverses' action photography, including wonders like a scorpionfly spearing the snack it just stole from a jumping spider's jaws.
Knowing about behaviors, Cheryl says, allows the couple to set up their cameras just before something amazing happens.
And so the book shows a still-damp swamp darner dragonfly just emerged from its naiad shell, a geometrid caterpillar doing a convincing imitation of a twig, fuzzy owlflies birthing themselves in a line of decoy eggs, a Mealybug Destroyer and a Brown Lacewing larva feasting on fat orange aphids, the corpse of a zombie grasshopper deserted by its pilot fungi but still clinging near the top of a stalk ...
But the long storage in computer programs created real sorrow when they realized the computer had compressed some of their favorite portraits into files too small to display well in print. Fortunately, book designer Amy Ashford had a few tricks up her sleeve; and their photo trove is truly vast. Norman was able to find replacement thingies to write about.
Norman also has culled from their cache another, as-yet unplaced manuscript: his field guide to Arkansas butterflies. It promises four or five identifying photos for each and every butterfly species known to inhabit the state -- not pin specimens, but live-action shots. Lori Spencer's beautiful Arkansas Butterflies and Moths (Ozark Society, 2006) would seem to have filled that niche; but he insists his book will be significantly different.
"I've written it about identification but I've done it with very little technical language and in a conversational style, which doesn't mean wordy," he says. "It's very economical. A couple of sentences on each one. It's mainly the pictures. You have to have good, close-up pictures which are at an angle that shows all the marks you want to show. And I discuss the marks, too."
Butterflies used to be an obsession, Cheryl says. After he retired from ASU in 2000, they decided to look for Diana fritillaries, the pretty species on the state license plate. A doctor in Conway, Herschel Raney, had posted on a chat board about Dianas; so they chatted him up. He agreed to meet them at Bell Slough Wildlife Management Area near Mayflower.
They were stepping, stepping, stepping around Bell Slough, when Raney pointed to a bumblebee. Cheryl remembers the moment. "He said, 'Big bumblebee,' and Norman said, 'No, it's a fly mimicking a bumble bee' -- because Norman has these things in his head from somewhere, from years ago."
It was a robber fly, and Raney was fascinated.
"It's a big, predatory fly," Norman says. "We really specialized in those for a long time."
The robber fly can defend itself; it has a beak to inject painful neurotoxins. But predators will leave a bumblebee alone.
"The other thing is, bumblebees, if you're not picking them up, they're very good-natured," he says. "You can, if you're another kind of bug, sit on a leaf next to one, and you don't worry about it."
And that's when the robber fly eats you.
"The robber flies were a total obsession," Cheryl says. "We went all over the state looking for robber flies."
They found a fourth aficionado in Jeff Barnes, then-director of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's Arthropod Museum. This friendship more than doubled the UA's specimen collection of robber fly species. Barnes published a paper, listing Raney and Norman Lavers as collaborators. Evidence can be seen at normanlavers.net, hr-rna.com/RNA (under Photos) and, with a subscription, in the archives of the journal Ecological News for May 2007.
"After the paper I had seen every robber fly I was likely to see in the state, and I like sort of a steep learning curve. So I just went off in a different direction," Norman says. "I think we might have done tiger beetles after that."
Cheryl: "And grasshoppers, which are really boring."
Cheryl: "They are so boring. He says interesting."
Norman: "She says boring."
Cheryl: "Some of them are quite beautiful. But an awful lot of them, the only way that you can identify them is by looking at the male genitalia."
Norman: "And I'm more interested in that than she is."
Cheryl: "Male genitalia?!"
Cheryl: "I had to take hundreds of pictures of the rear end of grasshoppers."
100 Insects tells amusing stories about beetles; true bugs; grasshoppers; dragonflies; Lepidoptera; wasps, bees and ants; flies; a miscellany of oddballs, and then the book ends in a fusillade of aphids. The best way to study aphids is to pull up a chair -- which they were able to do in their butterfly garden.
The butterfly idea sounds better than it looks about noon on this shaggy July day, but the Laverses have been out of state almost a month. Looking about the sunny disarray, Cheryl remarks that there are train tracks hidden by overgrowth across the street: "Our son used to get in the window here, and when the train came by, he'd wave to the engineer and the engineer would wave back."
All grown up, Gawain is a father now, in Tucson, Ariz., which is where the couple spent June. And where they have bought a house. In a year or so, they will leave this haven, and Arkansas, behind.
"It's a haven until 2021 when the Arkansas Department of Transportation is going to put a bypass route around Jonesboro that will swoop right behind our house," Cheryl says.
The Sonoran Desert promises a fertile field for their next obsessions. One morning while they were "camping" in the new little house they have outfitted with one bed, two chairs and one table, they watched tarantula hawks zipping to and fro above some stonework. These big wasps kill the big spiders.
Cheryl spotted a tarantula on a rock.
"What I could see was a spider standing on its tippy toes," she says, imitating with one hand. "You immediately knew that it was in a fight with a wasp. This thing was up in a defensive position on its tiptoes."
"What you hear is the spiders don't put up a fight," Norman says. The spider just surrenders. "But this spider was putting up a fight."
Their cameras are never more than a few feet away, and so they hurried outside and sat down to catch the show.
What a show it was. There was tumbling. And the spider won!
Neither of them got a clean action shot, but now they know what to watch for. Next time, they will pounce.
After Norman Lavers retired from Arkansas State University in 2000, he and wife Cheryl took up wildlife photography, focusing on insects.
“Sometimes we take an hour to walk across our front lawn,” says Norman Lavers. He and Cheryl long ago turned their yard into a butterfly garden.
A bamboo nesting box hung from the porch of Norman and Cheryl Lavers’ home attracts mason wasps.
ActiveStyle on 07/30/2018
Print Headline: Arkansas couple has spent years documenting state’s insect population