Fearing damage to Idaho's farm economy, Sen. James McClure said he is seeking federal money to stop a disease threatening the leafcutter bees that alfalfa seed farmers in the West depend on to pollinate their crops.

The malady, called "pollen mass," prevents the reproduction of leafcutter bees, the more important of two bee types that are used by alfalfa seed producers in Idaho, Utah, Washington, Oregon and Nevada.Leafcutter bees lay their eggs atop a pollen ball. But when pollen mass strikes, the eggs and larvae dissolve into a lifeless mass and combine with the pollen ball.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 1 billion cells of leafcutter bees are used in the United States in the production of alfalfa seeds, which have an annual market value of more than $100 million.

"That production means a lot to the economies of Idaho and its neighboring states," McClure said in a news release. "This research is vital, especially given the fact that pollen mass has the potential to cut bee populations in half."

Idaho's senior senator has convinced the Senate agriculture appropriations subcommittee to approve $92,000 in continued funding for bee research at public universities in fiscal 1989. The bill also has been approved by the full Appropriations Committee, but still must be considered by the full Senate.

If approved, the funding will be split among researchers at the universities of Idaho and Nevada, and Oregon State, Utah State and Washington State universities.

McClure said researchers at those schools are credited with developing techniques that greatly reduced the loss of leafcutter bees to chalkbrood. An outbreak of that disease in 1978 slashed alfalfa seed yields across the country.