Barry Donovan, King of New Zealand Bees

Franziska Schmidlin, as a masters student in ENTO 612 Advanced Entomology, was tasked with interviewing working entomologists. Here is part of her report on an interview with Dr Barry Donovan who has worked on insects for 50 years.

The first time I met Barry Donovan was while working on a project on a Leioproctus species, a native New Zealand bee, at Plant and Food Research Institute. Barry is called in when other scientists are in doubt or have questions on methods involved in working with native bees. Barry comes across as a very professional, old school, friendly fellow, particularly willing to share his vast wisdom about bees. I was keen to interview Barry about an entomologist’s life and how it has changed over the last few decades.

Our interview occurred in Barry’s office in September 2017. Sitting in the foyer of his small office building at the Plant and Food Research Institutes complex at Lincoln, I was excited to ask Barry a few questions. What has changed, where have the golden good times gone, what is left or maybe is it the other way around? I was accompanied by a young French student, Celine, who is starting up her career in science. So there were two different generations interrogating the  ‘King of NZ bees’, yet another generation older. Dr. Barry Donovan was born in Taumaranui in 1941.

Barry with a bumblebee.

What are your earliest memories of bees, Barry?

From a very early age I was interested in wasps. But my earliest memory of bees goes back to an after-school occasion at my primary school, where another pupil asked me to help him to get a swarm of bees, barehanded, mind you, into an apple box.

 It was the start of a life with bees for Barry. Soon after this encounter, Barry got his first beehives to care for.

After Barry talked about the start of his love of bees and first experiences as a beekeeper, he pointed out that he was a very lucky man to be able, after his Master’s at the University of Auckland, to receive a scholarship to go to University of California, Davis, to complete a PhD. At the time, in the 1960s, very little was known about the classifications of native bees, and NZ insects in general. Barry was ‘head-hunted’ back to New Zealand and employed at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, as an ecologist. The job was enormously exciting as he had to find a pollinator for Lucerne crop pollination, import it into the country and getting the bees established. Barry initiated the import of both Lucerne leafcutting bees and the alkali bee and their colonisation within arable land here in New Zealand. The first 15 years of his career were fantastic. At the time scientists could work to the full potential, knowing that their job was safe and secure and the projects could be as lengthy as needed to get to a sound answer.

Did you have a role model, a person who solidified your interest in bees and  who encouraged you all the way?

No, not really. The stint in Davis (California) helped me to see that not much work has been done, not only in USA, but all over the world.

 Barry however knew Charles Michener, the number one bee taxonomist in the world. Admiring Michener’s work, Barry points out that Michener focused on identification and classification, wherewas he was more of a fieldworker in ecology who did a little identifying and describing of native bees.

How many bees have you described, Barry, during your career?

14 species within New Zealand, and before that in the US another 15.

His latest discovery was in 2016, where Barry found a new Leioproctus species, Leioproctus hukarere, in the Mackenzie Country of the South Island, New Zealand.

How many papers have you written, do you know Barry?

Around 140.

His answer is quick and impressive at the same time.

 Has time, and general interest, changed the focus on projects over time?

Barry points out an example. The wasp is a pest within New Zealand, but particularly in native forests, such as Nelson Lakes beech forests, and has been the subject of ‘work’ for a very long time. For decades the ecologists were working in the field collecting’observations of Vespula germanica and V. vulagris, instead of focusing on controlling the pests. After 30 years, scientific research has come back to work he produced in the 1980s. A major project which Barry Donovan instigated was the introduction of biological control agents for wasps. One agent is established and evidence suggests it is killing many millions of wasps annually. A former Landcare Research manager effectively terminated the project in the1990s, but a couple of years ago, the project was revived within Landcare Research.

What drew you to choose science, and entomology in particular?

I loved to be outside, but only in good weather! Which is what an entomologist does.

Barry appreciated that he got the chance to travel all over the world and to find species and share knowledge at numerous conferences. He loved to work “for the good of the country as a whole”, have a safe regular income and be able to work on what he loves most. The first 15 years of his career where the best. When the change in the New Zealand’s politics and government happened at the end of the ‘80s, many of his close colleagues lost their jobs, some never regaining a job in their field and passion. It was a huge change for all scientists working for DSIR. Now the scientists’ work was filled with putting a bid in for their projects, as regularly and compulsory as every year. However, Barry points out that this has improved since the ‘90s. Bids for research projects are now able to cover four to six years, which helps most studies. But of course, many long-term studies can’t be tackled the way they did in the ‘70s; they don’t have the funding secured. Barry mentions that it is an enormous stress for scientists to live with the possibility that all their work may have no value if a particular project ends too soon.

Our last question to you:

Would you suggest that your grandson pick up the profession as an entomologist?

Up to recently I always said no. But today I realise that there are not just jobs in Science but everywhere else that are affected the same way. Nothing is secure, no job is safe. So yes, I would suggest it to a young person.

 Thank you, Barry, for your generous time and sharing your passion as an entomologist.

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